It is April, the Greek economy is in free fall and we are on the first charter flight of the season. Everyone on the flight is connected to bird-watching, indeed, this flight, and others like it, exist only because of demand from bird-watchers. Lesvos has fishing villages, sheep, goats and low-rise, with friendly, mainly non-English speaking, locals. In April it is also under the flight path of thousands of birds. I am one of the few here who can’t tell a passerine from a pintail and I am in a minority in another way too, I am male. All the other ‘neglected’ are women.
Our hotel in Kalloni has just re-opened after a bitter winter, so the rooms are damp and chilly, the heater/aircon doesn’t work and neither does the TV. Nonetheless, I tell myself, I have a sea view, a hired push bike, a map from Stanfords and there’s a swimming pool, albeit unheated. Life will soon settle into a rhythm.
It does. J. abandons me as soon as we arrive.
The bird-watchers rise at about six thirty in the morning and are outside before breakfast. Some of them are part of informal groups, others in guided, organised parties. J.’s little group has a volunteer organiser, a man who, like Radar from MASH, seems to be able to hear and identify approaching birds before the others even know that they are there. He has encyclopaedic bird knowledge and drives the mini-bus – for there is equipment – tripods, telescopes, other photographic gear. The hotel is empty by nine thirty.
At least breakfast is good – fresh, creamy greek yoghurt and local honey. On my first day I decide to cycle. Lesvos is mountainous and I cycle along the coast, but still encounter some gradients which necessitate a stop for wine and other sustenance. I also encounter some bemused looks from the natives. The Middle-Aged-Man-In-Lycra is a species unknown on the island and my outfit, though cotton not lycra and bought for me by J., is mauve, which may not help. Back at the hotel I encounter more Greek incredulity as I swim. Actually, the water feels okay after about five minutes, or is that my extremities numbing?
I befriend the barman, named Vangelis (yes, truly). He shares the general local view on wild life. If you can’t shoot and eat it, what’s the point of looking for it? I am cheered by this and by the unexpectedly early return of J. and her group. They have been chased back to the hotel by bees, producers of my breakfast perhaps, who took umbrage at the bird-watchers lurking near their hives. My private smirk disappears as I realise that, henceforward, all and any conversation will be about birds. I drink ouzo with Van.
He tells me that Kalloni plays football in the Greek Super League – the equivalent of, say, Jersey’s fourth largest village playing in the English Premier League. Apparently, Kalloni is only there because they were bought by some rich bloke, whose source of wealth is shrouded in mystery and of suspect legality. Wouldn’t happen in England, I assure him.
The following day I am out again on my bike, heading for a local museum. When I get there, it’s closed. Well, I wasn’t really that interested in the industrial uses of olive oil anyway. But the weather worsens, a storm brews and I race the rain back to the hotel. The rain wins. Cold and soaked, I am confined to barracks.
This becomes a recurring pattern over the next few days and I am sustained by reading the Times and listening to downloads, courtesy of free wi-fi in the hotel lobby. That afternoon’s entertainment is provided by two local dogs, who have escaped their owners and come to play in the hotel’s swimming pool amid the hailstones. But, what the heck, I have dinner and conversation to look forward to. And it’s time, I’ve decided, to study my fellow… residents.