Stelios’ behind and the Missing Moussaka

 

From our flat in Pireaus, where we lived for two years, there is a splendid view across Faliron Bay in the direction of the old airport. Washing up didn’t seem so painful when you could watch the yachts sail past and, now and again, a school of dolphins. 90 degrees in the other direction afforded a view of the island of Aegina. Many evenings I would sit on my bedroom balcony and look at the twinkling lights of Souvala village. One day I wanted to spend an evening there and look back at Pireaus. The chance came when our dear Italian friend, Pierra phoned to say she would be on Aegina for a week and did we want to meet up.

Pierra had been married and divorced twice. She claimed she couldn’t even remember the names of her ex-husbands because ‘they were not interesting people’. The only thing she remembered, according to her, was that they were both Greek. She is Protestant, with an unruly explosion of blonde hair, is unable to cook, is not in the least interested in fashion, and drinks wine directly from the bottle – very un-Italian in every way in other words, and lots of bubbly fun.

She was happy to spend the evening in Souvala with us. First of all though, we had to book into our favourite pension in Aegina Town, run by a young man named Stelios.

‘How about a room with balcony in the front, Stelio?’ I enquired.

‘Sorry, I only have room in my behind.’ he replied.

Now, at this point does one correct his English or not to save him possible future embarrassment? No, leave it. Charming as it is.

‘OK, that’s fine.’

The taverna on the beach in Souvala was relaxed, the service slow, but friendly. I fulfilled my ambition to look back across the water towards our flat, as we worked our way through some fried fish and a salad, but at one point we decided there wasn’t enough food. We were still hungry.

‘How about sharing a portion of moussaka?’ suggested Brian.

The waiter had our moussaka on the table in record time. I cut off a quarter and slid it onto Pierra’s plate and then took a quarter for myself. At that moment the waiter returned and snatched to plate back from me.

‘Sorry,’ he said,’ but this moussaka is for that table over there. I make mistake.’

‘But we’ve just eaten half of it.’

‘Doesn’t matter. No problem.‘

He put the dish down in front of a young English couple at the next table.

‘I’m terribly sorry,’ I said, ‘let me buy you something else. We’ve eaten half of your supper.’

‘That’s all right,’ the man said meekly, ‘this is enough for us.’

We sent them over half a litre of wine anyway, and started to chat. I assumed they were on their honeymoon, but didn’t ask. Then the waiter brought us a half litre of wine on the house. It turned out to be a fun evening with plenty of food and conversation, and when it was over we walked slowly back to the main town of Aegina, where we finished the evening with coffee and ice cream.

‘That was great. Now I hope I get a good night in Stelios’ behind.’

Pierra gave me a quizzical look.

‘Mamma mia,’ she said, ‘you English never fail to surprise.’

All Back to Normal

I, along with just about everyone I know in Greece, foreigners and Greeks alike, have a horror of anything to do with Greek bureaucracy. The thought of stepping inside a Greek government building fills us with fear and usually loathing for anyone behind a desk, especially when they are taking their time over a cigarette or sipping a coffee with room full of people waiting to be attended to. If they are laughing and talking at length on a mobile that only makes things worse.

So, you can imagine my trepidation as I set off to an office to pick up the final papers authorising my Greek pension. I pushed open the door on the third floor, expecting the worst, but an unexpected sight greeted my eyes. I stepped into a large, quiet, air-conditioned room, with green plants lining the walls and just a handful of people working at computers. I turned to leave, assuming I was in the wrong building, until a friendly lady asked if she could be of help. I immediately distrusted her, but explained anyway why I was there, after which she invited me to take a seat while she dealt with my papers. She came back 10 minutes later, handed me a file and said that everything was in order.

I briefly considered head-butting her or removing her glasses and poking two finger in her eyes, as I assumed she was making fun of me, but luckily I held back. Then to my astonishment she added.

‘There you are, Mr. Davidson, now if you need anything else, don’t hesitate to call.’

I left the building in a daze. The whole procedure had taken less than 20 minutes. Whatever next? I ordered a cappuccino in Omonia Square, expecting a cup of dishwater, but instead I was served a cappuccino which could have held its own against the finest in a Rome cafe, and I was wished a pleasant evening by the waitress. What was happening to the Greece I know and love?

Two days later, however, things were back on track when I went to pay the electricity bill. Two queues stretched out of the main door and halfway down the building. The screaming and shouting inside was deafening. The man whose job it was to tell people which queue to stand in, told me to join queue A. It took me nearly 40 minutes to reach the front of the queue, at which point the unsmiling girl behind the counter said I should have lined up in queue B. I went back and started again.

By this time the third or fourth screaming match was in full swing, and the miserable man behind computer 3 looked as if he were about to start a fistfight with one of his customers, who was leaning in a threatening manner over the desk, grabbing at the computer man’s shirt. Two women were crying, one man was punching a wall. Maybe he was upset at having to take a day off work to pay an electricity bill.  An old crone in black was shrieking blue murder because she hadn’t taken a number (she didn’t understand the system) and was trying to get to the front of the queue to the cashier. Other people were shouting at her for queue-jumping.  That’s more like it, I thought. I was getting a bit worried there.

Two hours and forty-seven minutes later I lurched out of the office, exhausted and mentally scarred, but proudly holding in my hand the slip of paper proving I had paid the electricity bill.

Next, the telephone bill.

Bring it on. 

Easter in Aghios Nikoloas, Crete

Standing by the lake in Aghios Nikoloas on Easter Saturday night as midnight approached, the noise was horrendous. Fireworks and what I assumed to be guns were exploding everywhere. There was no way of escape.

The effigy of Judas dangled over the water – a pretty impressive sight as the blazing body swung back and forth. I let out a blood-thirsty shriek, probably at the relief of not yet having been trampled to death, blown up by a bomb masquerading as a firework, or blown to bits by some mad Cretan farmer’s gun. Then suddenly all went quiet, and the crowds began to drift away to their chosen tavernas for the post midnight feast of hard-boiled eggs, salad and the much anticipated roast lamb. We had survived so far at least.

The four of us had decided on a Dutch restaurant, by way of a change. The owner, who seemed to be in world of his own, led us to the upstairs room, from where there was a spectacular view of the lake.

‘Do you have any kroketten?’ I asked, putting on my best Dutch pronunciation. I remembered how delicious they had tasted, breaded and deep-fried.

‘Cocaine?’ answered the spaced-out owner. ‘Yes, that’s not a problem.’

We refused his kind offer and instead enjoyed a choice meal at our leisure, including kroketten and some raw herring, before heading back to our hotel rooms.

The next day, Easter Sunday, we rose late, and looked forward to enjoying the day. Again down at the lake, we expected the crowds to be milling about, and the air to be filled with the smell of roast lamb. Even groups of people dancing in the streets.

Instead, to our shock, the place was completely deserted and silent. Not a shop or a restaurant was open. Not a soul in sight, except an old man sitting in a kiosk. Maybe he would know where we could enjoy some Easter Sunday festivities.

He didn’t seem to have too many ideas. However, he vaguely knew of a village a few kilometres away where a taverna was putting on Easter Sunday lunch for busloads of tourists. Everyone else was having a private family Easter, he explained. It seemed like our only hope.

We eventually tracked down a taxi and, half an hour later, arrived in an extremely quiet village, sporting, it seemed, one single, empty cafe.  The owner smiled at us.

‘Is there any chance of getting some food,’ I asked him. ‘Maybe some lamb?’

‘This is only a cafe,’ he apologised, ‘ but I can find a salad and some wine for you.’

‘We’ve heard about a taverna somewhere near here. Do you know where it is by any chance?’

‘You’re probably talking about the Platanos. It’s about 5 minutes walk from here. They always have a big do at Easter.’      

‘Maybe I can buy some meat from them?

‘Yes, I imagine they’ll have plenty left over.’

I walked the 5 minutes, and arrived at a taverna the size of an aircraft hangar, with tables to seat at least 500 people, but the waiters were just clearing up, the meal having finished a short time before. The busloads of tourists had, presumably, been whisked back to their hotels. It didn’t augur well for finding anything to eat.

I approached a woman standing by the door.

‘Would it be possible to buy some meat?’

‘Yes, of course, there’s plenty left. What would you like?’

‘Well, to begin with some lamb.’

‘Fine and we’ve got some country sausage, some lovely pork chops. How about some of each?’

She made me up a sizeable package, and I reached in my pocket for my wallet, hoping I had enough money to cover this feast.

‘Oh, no,’ she said,’ I don’t want any money. Happy Easter. Welcome to Crete.’

With that she turned away and continued clearing up the tables.

I went back to join the others. By this time the owner’s family had turned up and were dancing to loud Greek music. Tables were pulled together and we shared the meat, the salads, the wine.

Greek Easter had been saved by Cretan hospitality.

 

The Polish Connection

Our Athens flat is near Larissa Station. It’s a mainly Polish area, but also has a large population of Bulgarians, Russians, Nigerians, Ethiopians, Iranians, Iraqis and Bangladeshis, making it a colourful, cosmopolitan place to live. Within 200 metres of the flat I can buy spices from Bangladesh, beer from Bulgaria, and countless types of ham and sausages from Poland, not to mention any of 50 types of vodka.

Wandering around the area one warm summer’s evening, I came across a restaurant which looked interesting enough, so I gave it a try. I was chatting to the young waiter in Greek, when he suddenly said to me.

‘You’re not Polish, are you?’

‘No, why?’

‘Because some Poles, when they drink too much, start fights in here.’

‘Just a minute,’ I warned him, ‘I’m English, and we invented that behaviour.’

He gave me a free drink.

‘And where are you from?’ I asked him.

‘Oh, I’m Polish myself, but I’ve been here since I was eight, and I’m helping my mum to run this restaurant. My name is Danielle.’

The restaurant became a favourite of ours. Nice to have a plate of pierogi or kielbasa instead of the usual Greek salad or moussaka.

One evening, at the next table, a middle-aged man was tucking into something very Polish-looking, when he was joined by a tall, leggy blonde dressed from head to toe in brown leather, including knee-high boots. She kissed him on the forehead and sat down. Tall blondes from Russia and Poland are very popular in Greece as escorts, and we were pretty sure the fellow was in for a wild time.

In the meantime I had spotted a Polish optician’s right opposite the restaurant, and needing new reading glasses, I asked Danielle if he knew anything about the owner.

‘You’re lucky,’ he said, indicating the middle-aged man and the blonde. ‘That’s the owner right there. Come on, I’ll introduce you.’

I walked over to the table with him. He explained who I was and what I wanted in rapid Polish. I expected the man to stand up, but instead the blonde extended her hand and said in near-perfect English.

‘Hello, I’m Katerina, and if you’d like to make an appointment for tomorrow, I’ll be there. By the way, this is my father, who helps out in the shop, now and again.’

Never jump to conclusions.

And while we’re on the subject of opticians and Poles, have you heard the one about the Polish guy who goes to have his eyes tested?

‘Can you read this bottom line?’ the assistant ask.

‘Read it?’ the Polish guy replies, ‘I know him.’

Zobaczymy pozniej !

Leave our Ouzeris and Tavernas alone.

taverna1

‘They’re going to close us,’ said Hassan, my Egyptian waiter pal,’ I can’t sleep at night. No one will give me another job.’

Hassan works in my favourite ouzeri in the Flea Market, Monastiraki. The perfect spot to watch the world go by as you work through your karafaki of ouzo, accompanied by a small plate of olives and mini peppers.  

Another familiar, friendly place about to bite the dust, it seems.

Tsikouras taverna, where I spent my first evening in Greece, and which certainly helped me fall in love with this country, is now a pile of rubble in the centre of the Plaka. That intimate tavernaki in Kipseli, with its walled in garden, the smell of jasmine competing with wafts of cats’ pee on a warm evening, gutted and gone forever. A splendid ouzeri in Kalipoli, Piraeus, run by a huge, friendly fellow, his establishment adorned with fifty bird cages, was a twittering paradise. That’s been ‘renovated’ too. The view of the sea is still there, but the birds and their cages have been replaced by – nothing, unless you count a sheet of plain grey plastic as something. Another ouzeri, a hundred metres from our flat in Pireaus, run by a quiet couple from Karpathos – absolutely the top place to go for a Sunday morning ouzo, has now vanished, along with its owners.

Catching the ferry across to Salamina from Pireaus’ main port, another Sunday morning favoured outing, (fare 230 drachmas at that time)meant you sailed virtually into a ramshackle, utterly charming old taverna, serving yummy seafood, when it finally arrived, but who minded waiting?  Last time I was in Salamina I noticed it had been demolished and rebuilt as some shiny, ultra modern horror, all glassed in.

I could go on forever, but I think you’ve got the picture.

Back to my ouzeri in the Flea market. Maybe it will remain as an ouzeri, with, however, ouzo double the price, the wicker chairs which make a pattern on your bum, replaced by trendy wood and canvas numbers, the inside repainted – what’s wrong with pale, hospital green? And if they interfere with the loo and repair it so it flushes successfully every time, I, for one, shall never set foot in the place again.

Jamaican bedroom

jbed 1

This is the view from the bedroom to the mini pool. Notice the grapes hanging over it. A real feeling of decadence when they are ripe and you can pop them into your mouth while wallowing in the pool. Better still get someone else to pop them into your mouth.

This my desk where I'm supposed to sit and write, but I don't.

This my desk where I’m supposed to sit and write, but I don’t.

Head of my bed. The flag is from Antigua where I spent much of my childhood, and never had to wear shoes or worry about snakes as there are none on the island, like Ireland.
Head of my bed. The flag is from Antigua where I spent much of my childhood, and never had to wear shoes or worry about snakes as there are none on the island, like Ireland.

Note my exquisite taste, and there's a telephone to show we're in the 20th, I mean 21st century.

Note my exquisite taste, and there’s a telephone to show we’re in the 20th, I mean 21st century.

Had he lived Bob Marley would be exactly the same age as me. I spent the first year or two of my life in Kingston, Jamaica, so we must have passed each other on the street at least once, wheeled by our mothers or nannies. Therefore I virtually know him, and am entitled to put his picture on my bedroom wall. Apart from that, I love his music.

Had he lived Bob Marley would be exactly the same age as me. I spent the first year or two of my life in Kingston, Jamaica, so we must have passed each other on the street at least once, wheeled by our mothers or nannies. Therefore I virtually know him, and am entitled to put his picture on my bedroom wall. Apart from that, I love his music.

Seashells always add a je ne sais quoi, right? Hope so, anyway.

Seashells always add a je ne sais quoi, right? Hope so, anyway.

A blessing on an August day. Waist deep and 4 metres long, but it does the job.

A blessing on an August day. Waist deep and 4 metres long, but it does the job.

Last glimpse of my Caribbean Corner in the mountains of Western Attica, Greece.See you soon.

Last glimpse of my Caribbean Corner in the mountains of Western Attica, Greece.
See you soon.