Who would want to live anywhere else?

5pm local time here in Greece – a good time to call my dear friend Judi in Toronto. I think there’s about a 7 hour difference. We have a long chat, and Judi tells me how awful the weather is and that, at her age, she shouldn’t be shovelling snow from the front yard. Also Toronto is much more dangerous now, and the mayor is a fat drunk and a suspected drug addict.. I feel I can top this by describing life here in Athens plagued by strikes, demonstrations, having to spend a whole day to pay an electricity bill, earning half what we used to (increased taxes, which is something I thought only Germans paid) and bills, bills, bills, not to mention neo-Nazis roaming the streets of our city. 

Then we get on to health. I have a number of complaints including back pain, and explain I don’t relish going to the hospital here and fighting my way through the hordes in the almost vain hope of cornering my doctor. Not like those spotless, efficient hospitals in Canada. However, when Judi begins to describe her aches and pains I end up by feeling positively glowing with health. That round definitely to her.

We ring off, enjoying a feeling of mutual catharsis, as if all the ills in our bodies had been evacuated by a powerful laxative.

The next day, after my coffee in Omonia Square, where I have to listen to the Bulgarian waitress bitching about the way she is treated at the Aliens Bureau, I stroll along Athinas Street, and through the Flea Market in Monastiraki, where I stop for a chat with my Scottish friend, Mary Ann, who works in a tourist gift shop. She is thinking of moving back to the UK, as her husband has lost his well-paid job. I sympathise with her and tell her all I do is work to pay bills and new taxes and can’t hop off to an island every weekend as we used to do, and what with strikes and demonstrations life isn’t what it used to be, and I’m tired of losing the best part of a day just to pay an electricity bill. I feel better having got that off my chest. She agrees with everything I say.

A few metres further on I stop for another chat with the Greek guy who sells leather belts. He complains that tourism is down 30 % (it’s always 30 %), and that the tourists who come don’t have any money anyway, and that what he earns is hardly enough to pay his rent. I agree and explain that I seem to work to pay bills and am fed up with strikes and demonstrations and having to spend a day just to pay an electricity bill. He listens sympathetically and also agrees with everything I say, I think. I try to make him feel better by telling him that in Mandra, a village near mine, nearly all the shops have shut and the owners are starving to death.

Next stop is my local ouzeri where the waiter explains that custom is really down and nobody ever leaves a tip, not even wealthy Americans. I commiserate and tell him I’m tired of working just to pay bills, and have no money for extras such as island hopping at the weekend. He sits down next to me and broods, saying he’d like to move to Germany where his cousin works.

As I sip my ouzo I stare at the crowds for a while before heading back through the Flea market and on to Bairaktaris, my favourite taverna. Here it’s merry bedlam. Someone is playing a guitar inside and there isn’t a place to be had. It’s packed with locals and tourists alike, chatting, drinking, laughing and generally having a good time. I order a plate of stifado and half a litre of chilled white wine. The Albanian waiter who knows me slips me a shot of tsipoura, and tells me the wine is on the house too, as well as a plate of meze. A noisy band from South America is playing to an appreciative crowd. Americans in long shorts and Japanese in large groups are photographing everything. Gypsies are selling colourful balloons, the guys from Africa watches and DVDs, and finally the sun is shining. It’s a marvellous atmosphere.

Who would want to live anywhere else?

Never underestimate those old ladies in black

The young shepherd sat down under the vast branch of an ancient olive tree. The smell of woodsmoke filled the air, mingling with the scent of wild rosemary and oregano. The gentle breeze made the autumn day a pleasant one. He untied the small cloth bundle he was carrying and spread the contents carefully on the ground, smoothing out the checkered cloth with his long brown fingers. He placed his lunch in front of him – a handful of olives, a square of feta cheese and a chunk of country bread. The only sound was the slight rustling of the breeze through the branches and the tinkle of bells as the goats foraged for leaves and scrambled up the rocky mountainside. He sprinkled some crumbs of bread for the two sparrows who hopped at his feet.

On the beaten earth track way below him he noticed the bent figure of an old women dressed in black, slowly coming up towards him. She carried a large bundle of dry sticks on her bony shoulders, and under one arm bunches of herbs. As she reached him, he greeted her politely and invited her to share his meagre meal, but she refused, accepting only a mouthful of cold water from his goatskin. She sat with him for a while and they looked up at the village, with its expensive houses  and new apartment blocks.

‘Greece must have changed a lot since you were a girl.’ he observed ‘ Is this your home?’

She nodded and continued to gaze upwards at the village perched high on the ridge above them.

‘I mean, look at that pink and white building- I think it must be a hotel.’ he continued,’ You’d have to be a millionaire to own that place.’

She nodded again and continued to gaze silently ahead. Suddenly a shrill sound made him jump. The old woman reached into her pocket and pulled out a mobile phone. She had an urgent conversation with someone, and then replaced the phone in her pocket. She turned to the shepherd with a broad smile, revealing a line of broken teeth.

‘Good news.’ she said,’ They’ve finally agreed to buy it at the price I wanted.’

‘Buy what?’

‘Why the pink and white hotel. I’ve managed to sell my apartment block, and given my two sons an apartment each. It’s all too much for me at my age. I’ve been trying to get rid of that damn hotel for months.’

She reached over and popped a juicy olive in her mouth by way of celebration. 

Santorini

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Having slagged off Santorini in a recent blog, it’s time to re-dress the balance, as in the early 70’s I spent 10 wonderful days there. I was in the company of two Greek boys, Fotis and George, and two German girls, Vicky and Helga. We had hitched up in Skiathos and decided to carry on exploring the Greek islands together.

The German girls were amazing. They had been travelling round the world on and off for 7 years, and when we met up they had just come from 4 months in Goa. Nothing fazed them – if they wanted a shower they simply walked into the poshest hotel and demanded in loud confident voices to be looked after. Confidence was everything explained Vicky.

We found a two-roomed house in Santorini with the spectacular views over the caldera. We ate breakfast enjoying the marvellous panorama, and a shower consisted of pouring a bucket of water over each other. In those days there was no running water. It was idyllic.

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At least I thought it was idyllic.

One afternoon when the girls were out, I was sitting quietly minding my own business when Fotis came and sat down beside me. He put his arm round my shoulder.

‘Mike, we have a problem. It’s the girls – this is a bit embarrassing, but how can I put this? Nothing seems to be happening between us and them. I feel as if we’re just here to carry their suitcases … the summer is short and well ….’

‘Well what?’

‘We want you to talk to them to find out what the situation is.’

‘What? Can’t you do that yourselves?’

‘We’re too ……………. how do you say? ….Shy.’

To cut a long story short, I confronted the girls and indeed established that nothing was going to happen, a message I conveyed as delicately as I could to the Greek boys. The parting the next day was warm and friendly.  We waved them off as they caught the ferry to Milos. We hugged and kissed and I was sorry to see them go – we had become good friends.

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‘OK, girls it’s just us now, so don’t expect me to carry your suitcases. In fact I’m liberated enough to let you carry my rucksack and make my morning coffee.’

The next few days were taken up with swimming and exploring the island. We snorkelled on the black beach of Kamari. We explored Ancient Thira, excavated by the German archaeologist Hiller von Gortningen. We climbed up to the monastery of Profitis Ilias on Santorini’s highest point, from where, on a clear day, the mountains of Crete can be seen.

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In the meantime the local tailor had adopted us. On a couple of occasions we climbed into his rickety old pick-up truck and drove into the hills with a few of his mates. One of them had a small house there. We feasted on olives, tomatoes, cheese and tinned sardines, and washed it down with that wonderful, pungent, cloudy, barrelled retsina which is so hard to find nowadays. The Greeks have become too sophisticated to drink it. The room was thick with smoke and we danced to loud music from the radio, a couple of the tailor’s friends ending up on the table, performing a spectacular belly dance.

After one particularly memorable evening the tailor drove us back home at dawn. And no better place on earth to experience dawn than Santorini. The three of us sat there, not talking, just drinking in the incredible sight.Image

Finally Vicky broke the silence.

‘This place is Paradise. It’s idyllic. In fact it’s so perfect I think we should leave.’

We both knew what she meant.

The next day we set sail for Iraklion, Crete.

I often wonder what they are all doing. Are the Greek boys grandfathers, living somewhere in an Athens suburb? And are the German girls now grandmothers living in Hamburg or Berlin? I somehow doubt it. I can see Vicky marrying an oil millionaire and living in Texas, and as for Helga. Well, I see her charging across the plains of Mongolia on her Harley-Davidson, the wind whistling through her (now presumably) grey hair.

I suppose I’ll never know, unless of course one of them happens to read this blog ……..

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Right, said John

I was happy when my nephew John Patrick decided to come and spend a holiday in Greece with me. He’s an easy guest and seems to enjoy whatever is suggested. We did the usual Athens sight-seeing, admired the Acropolis from afar, lingered over ouzo meze in an ouzeri by the Old Stadium, and generally soaked up the atmosphere of the city.

However, there’s more to Greece than Athens.

‘I think we should go to an island – maybe Santorini.’

‘Right,’ said John.

Santorini is a must for the first time visitor to Greece with its incredible views over the caldera, and arriving by sea is a spectacular experience – the towering black cliffs topped by a dazzlingly white town. However, it’s far from being my favourite island. Backpackers from the Antipodes, American tourists galore from the cruise ships, in fact people from every corner of the globe filling its streets hardly gives you the feeling of getting away from it all. Trendy, expensive cocktail bars – it’s hardly your typical Greek island. Stay there two days – enjoy the view then hightail it out – that’s my advice anyway. 

I expected the usual crowd of ladies in black clamouring for us to stay in their rooms, but it seemed far more organized than I had remembered from previous visits. There was a large sign reading ‘Accommodation Association of Santorini’ where you were given a number, with which you inherited an old lady in black who led you away to her home. A bit hit and miss I thought, which didn’t give you the chance to bargain for a lower price or to make sure you got a room with THE VIEW.

‘OK, luckily I speak the language so I’m going to interview a few of these ladies to make sure we get what we want.’

‘Right,’ said John.

I talked to a few friendly ladies until I felt we had struck lucky – a decent price and a house with the fantastic views.

‘It makes a difference when you know the language and can bargain.’

‘Right,’ said John.

We followed our host through the winding, narrow, whitewashed streets until we came to a house with the main requirement – a huge balcony with a gorgeous view.

However, she led us into a back room with a tiny window and no view whatsoever, just two single beds.

‘I thought you said you had rooms with a view?’ I complained.

‘I do,’ she said ‘I have several, but they’re all occupied.’

‘We’ve been had.’

‘Right,’ said John.

A Night in the Bar

 

I hoped we would have more than a few customers in the bar as we had reached High Season. Apart from enjoying their company (usually) we had to earn a living. It was early, as far as bar opening time was concerned, but in walked a giant of a man who looked like a rugby player. He walked up and planted two enormous hands on my bar.

‘Good evening, I’m from South Africa.’ he said,’ Now, do you have a blue arse?’

I wasn’t sure how to answer this, but assuming it was some sort of South African humour, I replied;

‘Well, I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.’

This did not seem to be the reply he was expecting, neither did the obvious humour strike him as funny. He repeated the question. Risking all, I gave the same answer. The situation was saved by a kindly girl sitting at Brian’s bar.

‘It’s his South African accent,’ she explained, ‘he actually wants a blue ice – it’s a popular cocktail in South Africa.’

‘Oh, sorry, we don’t serve those. Maybe a rum and coke instead?’

This seemed to satisfy him, and he retired to the end of the bar with his drink.

Next in was Min. Min was a good friend, an English girl who spent every summer in Skiathos and every winter running her restaurant in the French Alps, which allowed her to participate in her favourite sport of skiing. Min was fun except that once she had more than 2 drinks she began to giggle incessantly and talk complete rubbish in a high-pitched voice at breakneck speed. By the look of her she’d already had at least three drinks. I was able to serve her mainly by lip reading, and in any case she always had a campari soda. I introduced her to the South African rugby player and left them to it.

Next in were the two little grey-haired ladies from Barnsley, who always insisted on addressing me in a strange mixture of Italian and Spanish.

‘Buenos noches, Mike, dos gin and tonic por favor.’

‘Here we are ladies, but you can talk to me in English, you know.’

‘Oh, right, how silly we are. It just seems so natural to slip into a foreign language when you’re abroad, doesn’t it?’

‘Absolutely. Now what did you two get up to today?’

‘We went to Banana Beach. It was lovely.’

‘You mean the nudist beach?’

‘Yes, you should see our all-over tan.’

No, I shouldn’t.

By this time my bar was filling up. There were two Scottish boys who talked non-stop about microwave ovens and how to produce the best baked potatoes, but they were buying beer after beer.

A short bearded guy walked up to the bar.

‘Barman, how would you like two broken arms? ‘He said in an Australian accent. ‘If not get two cold beers on this table faster than a kangaroo can pass wind.’

I turned to the fridge to get the beers. In the background, from Brian’s bar I heard.

‘Buono sera, Brian  – due gin und tonic, por favor.’

I checked on Min and the South African rugby player. He was happily nursing his blue arse, but had a glazed look on his face, mesmerized by Min who was talking nineteen to the dozen, her tirade interrupted by hysterical giggles. However, I could swear he was getting his revenge by answering her in Afrikaans, not that Min would notice.

Another night in the bar.

I reached for the tequila bottle.  I deserved a shot or two.

 

Ronnie

 

When you run a bar on a Greek island, which we did for two years, you are bound to find yourselves in some strange situations, and become entangled with a host of unusual characters.

One such character was Ronnie, an affable South African who had lived on Skiathos for decades and in fact had started the first windsurfing/sailing school. Unfortunately, Ronnie thought he was James Bond, and usually referred to himself in the third person, whist describing spectacular deeds he had accomplished.

’Mike, no one else could do this, but Ronnie is going to sail, singlehandedly, Latsis’ sixty foot yacht from here to Skopelos. Ronnie’s the only one they trust. They know it’s the sort of thing I could do with my eyes closed.’

However, Ronnie had one major problem – he was a chronic alcoholic. He’d be dry for months and then suddenly hit the bottle again – drink non-stop for three days and then collapse and be rushed to Volos hospital, an inch away from death. He’d re-appear on the island several weeks later, back on the wagon until the next relapse.

He walked, or rather lurched, into our bar one Saturday evening, complete with dark glasses to hide the bloodshot eyes.

‘Mike, a double Scotch.’

‘Ronnie, you know I can’t do that. Have an orange juice, and it’s on the house.’

‘Don’t mess with me, Mike. I have friends on this island and can get my own way, you know. Even have this bar closed down.’

This was like being threatened by a large, cuddly teddy bear. I put the orange juice in front of him anyway. He ignored it. We stared at each other.

Suddenly, he removed the chain he was wearing round his neck.

‘Here Mike, I want you to have this.’

He pushed the thin gold chain across the bar towards me.

‘To what do I owe this honour, Ronnie?’

‘You know what the weather’s like tonight, Mike. Rough and stormy. Well, Ronnie’s got to get the Sampsaki boat back to Kanapitsa by morning. I have to swim out, knife between my teeth, and cut it free before the storm sinks it. They’re depending on me. It’s something only Ronnie can do, Mike. The thing is I may not make it so I want you to have this gold chain, in my memory, so to speak, and one more thing.’

‘What’s that Ronnie?’

‘If I don’t make it I want you to pour a bottle of Scotch on my grave, because you know as well as I do that drink has contributed towards my death.’

‘Fair enough, Ronnie but do you mind if I ask you something?’

‘No, go ahead, Mike.’

‘ I just wonder, ….. this is difficult to say, …. but would you mind giving me the money for that bottle of Scotch now?’

‘What?’

‘The bottle of Scotch – I’d appreciate it if you’d pay up front. It’s all very well asking me to pour a bottle of Scotch on your grave, but business is not that great in the bar at the moment.’

Ronnie glared at me for a couple of moments. At least I assumed he was glaring because it was difficult to tell as he was wearing dark glasses. Then he scooped up the gold chain, put it in his pocket and marched out of the bar. I had obviously hurt his feelings.

 I didn’t see him for six weeks, so I assumed he had been through the recuperation in Volos again.

However, one sunny morning we were sitting together on the seafront drinking orange juice.

‘So Ronnie, did you ever get the yacht safely back to Kanapitsa on that stormy night?’

‘What are you talking about, Mike? What yacht? What stormy night?’

‘Never mind. Good orange juice, eh?’

‘Certainly is. Wouldn’t touch anything else. Cheers.’

‘Cheers, Ronnie. Your good health.’

 

Out with the Old

One day, while enjoying your coffee and cheese pie in an Athenian roadside cafe, take a look at the number of brand new, shiny cars which whizz past, many of them Mercedes and BMW’s. A Greek friend of mine told me his countrymen and women would rather eat nothing but beans as long as they could drive a new car. There are virtually no jalopies, that is except for mine, a battered 13 year old Mazda, and my friend Carol’s (mind you she’s English too) whose car could easily, at any moment, self destruct. But she rattles through Athens with her head held high. When the engine makes a funny noise, she just sings with greater gusto.

 This love of everything new goes right through Greek society, although it hasn’t quite reached the excesses of Italian society where ‘La bella figura’ dominates life. I remember my good friend Mario handing me a jacket which he still liked but had worn for two years, so fashion dictated he had to get a new one. He knew I wouldn’t mind accepting second hand clothes, ‘because I was English’. True enough – I do remember happily shopping in my early twenties for second hand clothes in a Chelsea market. I’ve never seen a second hand clothes shop in Italy or Greece, although with the present economic crisis here maybe things have changed.

Albanians share this Greek passion. Yiannis, a waiter, was telling me how he had walked all the way from Albania 15 years previously to find work. He was planning to go back to Tirana to visit his parents.

‘I assume you won’t be walking back, Yianni,’ I joked, ‘how much is the bus fare?’

‘I don’t know – I’ll be driving back in my car.’ He replied, pointing to a brand new Toyoto sitting in front of us. Good for you, Yianni. I thought of my other Albanian friends who wouldn’t be seen dead in the 10 euro sneakers I knock around in. Just like Greeks, only the best, most expensive trainers for them.

If it’s new, it’s good. When I was working for a book publisher here in Athens, I had to write material for junior English-language books. One exercise consisted of an imaginary post card written by an English boy on holiday in Portugal. One line was ‘We are staying in a lovely old hotel in Lisbon.’ Everything I wrote was passed on to the Greek girls, whose job it was to check that it made sense for the young Greek market. Apparently that phrase did not. How could a hotel be lovely and old? To be lovely it would have to be new, no? I had to change it. And so on.

However, those who do have a reputation for real crass consumerism are the Russians, and there are millions of very rich Russians living in Greece. If you want to sell your villa, try a Russian – he’ll probably pay for it in cash, (and he won’t be wearing second hand clothes.) Hence the following joke which was doing the rounds in Greece.

A Russian is standing by the wreck of his white BMW (it’s always a white BMW) which he has just written off in a crash.

‘Oh, no. My beautiful BMW, my beautiful BMW.’

A policeman approaches him.

‘Why on earth are you worried about your car? You lost your left arm in the crash.’

‘My left arm? Oh, no. My Rolex, my Rolex!’

I’m quite happy to be an unfussy Brit. My watch cost 5 euro in Monastiraki, and it’s still working after 6 months, and my 10 euro sneakers haven’t worn through yet. So there.