NEWS

Some faithful locals are trying to preserve the identity of the island

The draw of money is a powerful thing. A few locals have tried to preserve the identity of the island as they remember it from their childhood by building traditional cottages. They recall the picturesque Aegean island, the port with the red boats, the dirt roads that were accustomed to the footsteps of children. They complain about the noise at five in the morning when the last merrymakers go to bed. They cannot understand why Athenians bring their habits with them on holiday instead of leaving them behind. It was those people I went to meet. The traditional types, like Michalis and Maria Prasinou, who would consider it rude not to offer you breakfast and lunch and have coffee with you when they rent you a room. People like the elderly shopkeeper who still has some items in her shop that are priced in drachmas. Or the owner of the Palm Tree, also known as Palm Tree, with his deep voice and good heart, who «raised generations of kids in the summer,» he says. He dealt with the «little disasters,» when 16-year-olds got drunk, and the «overly daring» acquaintances made by the girls. Antonaros, or Big Antonis, a diamond in the rough, is building what may be one of the most beautiful complexes of rental rooms in the Aegean. And there’s Captain Costas, who curses like a trooper, but who gets everything out of his system when he goes to sea in a storm. Spyros is one of the young islanders who keep coming back to their speck in the sea and see it turning into a fashionable tourist destination. Along with them I also noticed the shabby work being done on the island, the would-be Cycladic houses that have nothing Cycladic about them except that they are painted white and have blue shutters. I couldn’t help noticing the swimming pools that have been built 50 meters from the sea that spoil the landscape and raise prices sky high. Like it or not, tourism has changed the place and the people. The first stop after disembarkation in the port is at the minimarket of Marousa Skopelitou. She has seen hordes of tourists visit the island; she knows a few words of English and she has not set foot in Athens for many decades. A pleasant disorder reigns in her store, with flip-flops next to the sausages, a few brands of cigarettes, plastic dolls, a frying pan or two and some water pistols. Some of the prices are still in drachmas on old products left on the shelf. Shy and reserved, Skopelitou has spent more than 60 years on the island. She has never had children and believes what she sees on television: «They’d send me to the old people’s home, it’s true what they say on TV.» The one thing that annoys her is the noise. She can’t stand the noise of motor bikes at 5 a.m. «On Ios, the mayor tried to close down the bars earlier but the bar owners wouldn’t let him.» Locals say that tourism on Koufonissi has increased by 400 percent in the past few years. Inevitably, some visitors are noisy. The houses look similar, but every now and then there are grotesque architectural effects: little columns on balconies and three-story houses. This is what Big Antonis is resisting. Antonis Mavros, his real name, is a sturdily built giant with an innocent childlike gaze. Fairy-tale cottages He has built cottages that look as they have come from the pages of the Brothers Grimm. White, one-story buildings with rounded corners and a stairway up to a roof terrace, they have built-in beds and lamps made of clay ewers, a courtyard with a cane screen, bougainvilleas and flower beds. In the heat of the morning, a cicada breaks the silence and we drink the coffee Christina has made for us. She is on holiday with her friend Nektarios. It is their first visit and they are impressed by the hospitality of the islanders. Big Antonis approaches. «We had some stables, one for straw and one for animals. I repaired them. In 1997, I got a permit and in 1998 I rented them,» he said, speaking of the rooms with the unusual names: Captain, Virgins and Sin. He didn’t want to put tiles in the bathroom and so the rooms were not given the highest official accommodation classification. It bothered him a bit. What really does bother him, though he says he doesn’t get involved in public affairs, are the changes that his island has been subject to. «When I built these rooms, there were 600-700 rooms; now there are 1,200. It has harmed our quality of life. The island’s architecture has been spoilt. We no longer build low houses with plaster, courtyards and flowers. Now they are ugly, there are two- and three-story houses, they even use the basement,» he said.