Different Places Aren’t The Same

The stray dogs on the island don’t look like stray dogs. Most of the cats have been through the wars, but barring a couple of raddled exceptions the dogs look pretty happy.

At our hotel, a particularly beautiful male mutt takes residence, but when we ask if he belongs, we’re told emphatically “no”.

“He’s a stray.” We’re told. “My niece kept petting him, so I got him his jabs.”

He stalks around the grounds, moving from table to table in the restaurant under the awnings, as food arrives for the guests, but he never really begs. Back home, our own dogs can’t contain themselves when we’re at dinner, despite never being fed from the table. But here, the stray dogs are happy just to sit where the food is. It might be the island way of life infecting them. Maybe they figure that if you’re going to feed them, you’re going to feed them, and pushing the point isn’t going to make it happen any quicker.

The hotel does own three dogs, but they stay in a large, grassy fenced off area before this property and the next, with plenty of space and shade. They bark a lot.

There is also a small cat family, with two adults and two kittens, on the grounds, but we never work out who they belong to.

We fall in love a little with the family that run the hotel. One of the sisters is here all the time, working, and sometimes we see her father. The other sister, the one who the place is named for, comes and goes with her husband, and their three year old daughter is around all the time. She learns the names of the guests, and mimics greetings in English and French, and on one day that delights everyone present she paddles in the pool with her auntie.

We wonder where they all sleep, and how they feel about things. Whether the one who works there ever wonders why the place isn’t named after her.

We’re curious about the other guests. For the first part of the week, the hotel and the area around the pool is populated mainly by beautiful children, talking fast in a language that I often mistake for hard to decipher English. The older girls congregate around a strapping lad in a way that makes it difficult to work out family affiliations, and the parents leave them to it that makes it harder. They are very polite, and confident in the giant hotel pool.

Around halfway through our holiday, they leave and are replaced by an equally difficult to distinguish cluster of English families, all returning visitors to the island, all already familiar with each other. The parents are more present, but equally distant hands off from their children. The men talk business in the bar area, the women drink wine around the pool after breakfast. Their children are shriller, and heavier, but they navigate the pool with the same familiarity. The kids in the pool make me feel slow and embarassing.

Other than them, there are a few older English couples, who come here very year. Two of the couples are interchangeable – exuberant, chatty sun-worshiping wife, and solemn, cane-straddling husband sitting in the shade. The way we tell them apart is that one of the women comes further alive come cocktail hour.

There’s a younger English couple who we spend a bit of time with later in the week. My wife feels validated by the fact that the other girl has spent as much time trying to decipher the other guests. They swap theories and stories that they’ve come up with for them.

We walk down to the nearby town every day, for water and to eat dinner in one of the restaurants. It’s quiet, and our early exploration suggests that it’s composed mainly of a few tiny residential streets spidering out from a pretty, well-kept square. At the weekend, there is a local festival, and we find ourselves wondering where all the people have been hiding. Hundreds of Greeks fill the center and the streets, restaurants straddling the pavements with extra seating, and the place feels both more crowded and much bigger.

We bump into people from our hotel almost every night, regardless of which of the many restaurants we eat in. Dogs and cats run between the tables, and we only ever see one animal push the envelope – a cat that we see over a few nights, that starts to nudge at any viable target’s thigh with his paw. The diners take it in good humour, and the waiters only make a passing effort to stop them.

The cats rule the restaurants, with the dogs sitting back and waiting for their turn. But at one point we see a cat stray out a few yards from the edge of the restaurant, out in the open on the beach, and the dogs descend on it in a pack, seeing it sprinting, fur raised, back to the street.

The first night, we ate near the hotel, and that’s when we first saw all of the dogs, random and mercenary, lazily vying for scraps. The first time we walk all the way into the town, during daylight, we realise it’s a different story. A dozen or so dogs collect in the alleyways, a clear pack hierarchy emerging as they play and nip and nap. And running together like that, you realise that they all look like domestic breeds, coats clear and eyes smiling. It confounds our expectations.

You aren’t allowed to flush paper down the toilets, and you have to be constantly mindful of having bottled water, but the ground feels the same under our feet, and the telegraph poles that dominate back home are here as well, imposing on any attempts we make to capture the geography of the place on camera. The roads are dusty and uneven, the cash registers are ancient, and the buildings old-fashioned, and we forget where we are.

In the middle of the week one of the hotel sisters tells us that a celebrity back home has died. Afterwards, you start to notice that everyone who lives here has mobile phones, only a couple of months behind the ones back home. Of course, they always did. I discover that the hotel has had a wifi connection all along.

On our final night, as we pay our bar bill, we get talking to the daughter that shares her name with the hotel. We learn that her father lives in an apartment underneath where we’re standing in reception. The dogs aren’t all strays – some of them belong to the locals, but people keep pets differently here. She and her daughter and her husband don’t live here at all, once the season is over: they live in Northern Greece, where her husband is from, and it rains, constantly. Working here in the summer is a holiday for all of them.

The families at the beginning of the week are Dutch, and easy to distinguish from each other. The English families are similarly straightforward, once you’re given their structure. And everybody on the island came to town for the festival.

The dogs are exactly the same as the ones back home, they just live on an island in Greece.

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Nicolas Papaconstantinou
Nicolas Papaconstantinou is an enthusiastic amateur creative type, and the chap behind Elephant Words. Be nice to him. He growed up kinda wrong.

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