About ten years ago, I went on a long holiday to Sicily with an extended group of family and friends. We stayed in a large house that had been an olive press in a former life, and still stood in the middle of acres of fruit and olive groves. It was beautiful, but eerily remote and quiet, with all the added atmosphere that the Sicilian context gives. One day, when a few of us were bobbing around in the pool, up to nothing, one of our party revealed she had thought of the perfect first line of a novel: ‘We always went to Balu’. (The house was called Balu). A great first line indeed; succinct, enticingly loaded. In fact, nice as Balu was, and as intriguing a plot as it promised, that was the one and only time we went there, and as far as I know the rest of the novel is still safely locked in her head, a masterpiece in waiting no doubt.
In the meantime, my parents, for the last eight years, have been reliably returning at least once a year to a sleepy and very friendly Peloponnesian fishing village. Tolo. Not that I would ever have put them in the ‘we know what we like, and we always stay here, and on the second night we eat here’ category of tourist; nevertheless they do always stay in the same hotel and Mum does always have the calamari as soon as she arrives.
And more often that not, I have gone with them. Whilst I do have an ambition to try and see as much of the world as I can before I die, there are some very particular pleasures and entertainments associated with the small and familiar resort break: the recognisable local characters, the in-depth scrutiny of fellow guests that a week in proximity allows. This time, on returning, someone gave me ‘Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday’, which I watched, and which made me wonder which came first in terms of speculation as entertainment. Do we have a tendency to read other people’s situations as more amusing or interesting than they really are because of the cultural legacy of commentators like Jacques Tati?
Whatever, the experience of a week in Tolo is not unlike the Hotel de la Plage of Tati’s excellently observed film. Starting with the locals. Hours can be spent deciphering the family connections, who works in which restaurant, and who owns which boat. And then there is the particular sadness of discovering that someone you had watched puttering out in a little fishing barque early every morning last year is no longer with us. Apparently there is some disparity between the romantic notion of the old fisherman, at one with the sea, and the realities of the havoc wrought on the body by the elements; on aging lungs by salty sea mist. And you worry who looks after the two unwaveringly friendly beach dogs, little souls who spend all day chaperoning parties of sunbathers and tourists up and down the seafront, tails in the air. I hope someone feeds them.
Just as curious is the panoply of human life represented by the multi-national guests, whether regulars or newbies. The English family who don’t speak to each other; the elderly American heiress with adopted grand-daughter and adopted grand-daughter’s aspergic mentee; the two grandfatherly Italian lawyers, whose principle activities consist of smoking grappa-infused cigars, reading Roman newspapers, and debating; the obese family, always eating; three little Greek children, all steps and stairs, running around in water wings and clamoring at the ice cream freezer; the pale French lady in a straw hat who never strays from the shade. You also become acutely aware of your own role in other people’s observations. Imagine the stir you might cause by going for a run early one morning. To say nothing of when you accidentally have a fling with a local.
Finally, once you are well embedded as a regular – perhaps in your fourth or fifth year – you find you start, much like M. Hulot, to play a more active role, occasionally precipitating events, beyond simply observing. And so it was this summer, with the case of the missing silver lilo.
You see – one morning it just wasn’t there. I was potentially under suspicion, having been the last person to put it away. But I knew beyond doubt I had left it in the approved place (in the corridor by the toilets, behind reception, on the way to the back of the kitchen). Nor was it to be seen anywhere on the beach. Quite the conundrum. Now, this may not seem like a major issue, in the grand scheme of things. But we really loved that lilo, were bereft without it, unable to float quite as lazily; and, as someone put it – ‘I’m not doing world news this week – Tolo is my world and this is big news.’ Yes, we could have walked five minutes down the beach and bought another, for the not-too-princely sum of ten euros. But, dammit, we’re English, and it’s the principle of the thing.
Whole mealtimes, long periods of basking in the water and sitting in the shade, were dominated by discussion of ‘what might have happened to the lilo.’ Not to mention the time spent dreaming up lilo-and-crime related puns (‘You better li-lo for a while’, etc). After that, we moved on to contingency plans for how to get it back, or ‘what we’ll do if someone appears on the beach with a similar lilo’. Strategies were devised. Sophisticated strategies, playing to the strengths of each family member. Aunt Marie: the eyes of the operation, on permanent lilo-watch from her terrace vantage point. Mum: the first line of attack, psychoanalyse the suspect into admitting their thievery. Russell: sucker punch. Me: flash. Joan: grab and run. Dad (last resort this one): slash said lilo with trusty swiss army knife.
Then a new piece of information came to light. One of the other hotel guests – let’s call her Eleanor – had seen a family with three lilos! One was blue (uncannily identical to one Eleanor had lost) and another of which was silver (just like ours). Let’s ignore the fact that there were only three principle varieties of lilo on sale. Eleanor, convinced the blue was her own, bravely challenged the family in question about their abundance of lilos, but to no avail. So when they went off for lunch she stole hers back. And she promised that when she left the hotel at the end of her stay – with still no sign of the silver – she would bequeath the blue to us.
On the day of her departure, however, one of our party discovered both the blue and the silver on an upstairs terrace – a hitherto unknown storage place. Hurray! Found! Now the happy owners of not one, but three lilos! Happy, except: what to do with that guilty third lilo? And should we tell Eleanor that she had unwittingly committed actual theft? Quite the ethical dilemma. We decided to keep Eleanor in the dark – it wouldn’t be a kindness to tell her.
So Eleanor went home none the wiser. Yet the plot thickened when, late one afternoon, Mum found herself on the end of her own hypothetical line of questioning. A Greek lady sidled up to her on the beach and asked, ‘Have you seen our lilo? It looks a lot like that one?’ (Pictured above). But Mum could be reassured by the time of day at which theirs had gone missing: whilst we were indeed illegitimately in possession of a similar lilo, it couldn’t possibly have been theirs. Someone else was the culprit. However, with regard to karma, and the great lilo continuum, Mum insinuated that she knew where they might find a ‘spare’ one – in the corridor by the toilets, behind reception, on the way to the back of the kitchen, of course. Thus, we found ourselves at the heart of the Tolo lilo black market. The accidental puppetmasters. I wonder to what depths we will sink next year.