Sunday, 15 January 2017

Normal Service is Resumed

I'm glad to say that weather-wise, things are much more normal now than they have been of late. After a cold spell the like of which Greece hasn't seen in several decades, by and large the temperatures at least are now once again much more in keeping with the averages expected for this time of year. I'm not sure this holds true for some of Northern and Western Greece yet, but here on Rhodes, well, this was taken on Friday morning as we drove up to town on a shopping trip...

As I often remark, the camera doesn't do the view justice, since it's only my iPad's and I don't have a super-duper lens on any of my photographic devices anyway. I took this on the "Tsambika" bend because as we turned the corner my wife uttered a gasp of amazement at the beauty of the snowcapped Turkish mountains. If you peer at the above shot long enough you'll just be able to make them out to the right of the rocky hillside and almost mid-photo. This shot in no way does the grandeur of the view justice. On occasion as you drive North when the atmosphere is clear at this time of year the entire horizon is full of these impressive peaks. I am always put in mind, when I see them, of the time when we visited the USA in June 1999. We were driving out across the Utah desert and the view behind us was an entire horizon of the High Rockies. The view one gets from some vantage points here on Rhodes of the Turkish mountains is indeed comparable.

The last few days have seen temperatures in the daytime of around 18ºC, with overnights finally climbing above zero to a more normal 8, 9 or even 11ºC. Par for the course. Sakis the TV weatherman (may his name be blessed) has even posted on his Facebook page that we ought not to be seeing any more nasty surprises for a while. Why, as we ate a light lunch of Gorgonzola cheese with crackers, sliced tomato and a glass of chilled Retsina on our terrace yesterday, we watched a couple of speedboats out on Kiotari Bay. It was almost like summer.

Some things, though, still remind us of the fact that we have a lot of catching up to do rain-wise. We visited our old friend Gilma this morning and, as we sipped at the Ellinikos that he'd prepared for us, we talked about the rain situation. Just outside his modest single-storey farm cottage way down toward the South of the island, he has a mature lemon tree and it's covered in fruit.

Looks normal enough doesn't it? Yet on close inspection you find that the lemons are much smaller than they ought to be. This is because, although the rainfall has recently been recovering to somewhere near normal levels for a Rhodean winter, it still didn't rain when it counted. Gilma, a pretty fit man for his 78 years, told us that he views November as the "heart of the winter", even though it falls only just after the summer has ended and a full four months and then some before the next summer gets under way with a vengeance. He says this is because the average rainfall for our winters here is usually higher in October and November than any other of the winter months. Couple that with the fact that we had no appreciable rainfall from September 2016 until about three weeks ago, and you see why many fruit trees, orange and mandarins included, are now wielding small fruit.

In fact, since he never wants to see us leave without a parting gift, he rummaged around in his rudimentary kitchen for a plastic bag and told us to pick as many as we wanted to take with us. So we obeyed and brought a bulging bagful home with us. My wife set about trying to juice some with our lemon-squeezer and she said that they were almost dry inside. They might just about do if sliced and dropped into a G&T, but for extracting juice, they are non-starters.

While sitting with our old friend, the conversation turned as usual to the 'crisis'. He told us an amusing, although rather too true anecdote. Two older Greeks were talking in the Kafeneion. They didn't know each other all that well. One said, "I have three sons, they are all farmers. Aaach, not one of them ever made much of himself, but at least they've never brought me any trouble. What about you?"

"Oh, I have two. I wanted them to turn out well, to bring a measure of pride to my wife and I, but one of them is a thief and the other a murderer."

"What?" Exclaimed the other old man, "That's terrible. Didn't you see any signs of undesirable traits as you were bringing them up?"

"Oh, not really."

"Didn't they pursue a career of any sort?"

"Oh, yes. Of course they did. That's exactly what I mean. One is a thief, the other a murderer. One's a lawyer, the other a surgeon."

Gilma fired off that punchline with a wry smile. We'd just been talking about experiences we'd heard only this past week, both him and us, from people who'd needed surgery who'd been told for example by a doctor that it would cost €1000 and then been charged twice that amount as they checkout out of hospital. Plus, they were given no receipt to prove that they'd even been treated by the surgeon in question, who'd insisted that he be paid in cash. It's really rather galling that after seven years of 'austerity' and financial disaster in this country, there are still wealthy people, who no doubt would be the first to bemoan the sorry state of the country's finances, yet do their level best to avoid paying their taxes. 

As we'd arrived at Gilma's place, he'd just finished packing up his pickup in readiness to take his olives to the mill. 

His wife and son had just returned to Rhodes town, in fact they'd left only minutes before we arrived, having just spent the past few days harvesting olives from 8.00am until 4.00pm. The mills will close in about a week's time, so he only has a few days left to get his olives processed or miss the opportunity this season. He'd left them on the trees for as long as he could in the hope that the late rains would perhaps help the fruit to fatten up. Gilma's olives are very small, although that's because they are of that particular variety. We've been told by not a few locals that the small olives are better for oil yield than the bigger ones. No idea if that's the case, but we're no experts.

This is the first year since we came here (and we're now going through our 12th Rhodean winter) that we haven't been able to procure a barrel-ful of oil from somewhere, whether it be through working the harvest or buying some oil from someone we know. Oil is the hot topic of conversation (after politics) out here from November through at least January. You meet with friends and you find the conversation invariably goes something like this:

"You have oil this year?"
"Yea, but not as much as we need. May still have to buy some."
"So you haven't got any I can buy from you then?"
"No, afraid not. Our stocks of old oil are almost gone now too. You could ask Nikola at the kafeneion. He sometimes has oil for sale."
"Asked him last week. Told me he was having to cadge some from Stergo, his brother."

And so forth. What often happens too is that when we meet up with friends, maybe we've given someone a lift somewhere a few times or done some other kindness, they'll produce a 1.5 litre plastic mineral water bottle which they've filled with their own oil and give it to us as an expression of gratitude. Definitely an incentive to find things one can do for others. Especially others who have lots of olive trees. Olive oil is almost a currency here the way it is exchanged for various favours.

Going logging tomorrow, as the wood store is just beginning to look less than full. Shan't need to wear several layers this time though, as we have done a few times this past couple of weeks. With temperatures as they are now, a t-shirt, maybe with a vest, ought to suffice. Can't say we're sorry that, at least with regard to the weather, normal service has been resumed.

View from our French Windows, 7th January.

Kiotari Bay, Saturday January 14th.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Core Plugs Still in Place

It's so difficult writing for an international audience. I know, I'm assuming that I do actually have an audience, but, well, one can dream. I mean, the title of this post contains the term 'core plugs" and then I go off Googling and find that somewhere across the pond they might be calling them 'freeze plugs' or even 'frost plugs'.

Whatever, it's my blog so I'll call them core plugs because when all is said and done I'm a British lad and that's what we call them in Blighty.

So, why am I talking about core plugs? Well, oddly enough an experience I had many years ago back in my home town in the UK came flooding back to my mind as I examined the max/min thermometer we have mounted in our car port at 8.30am this morning. I know I keep banging on about how many years we've lived out here, but my theory is that there's always the remote chance that I may have attracted a new reader or two and they won't be familiar with our story. So, as I already said: 

So, in our eleven years plus of living here we've never had temperatures as low overnight as we're getting at the moment. We watch the weather forecasts by our illustrious leader in all things meteorological, Sakis Arnaoutoglou (let his name be blessed) and he shows the entire European chart (which still shows Britain, so we haven't left yet, eh?) and this past week or so there has been a decidedly chilly-looking dark blue smudge all across the Eastern med, especially the Turkish mainland (maybe the Turks are trying to freeze these islands into submission) that translates into Siberian temperatures for the region, at least overnight.

All across the Aegean there are islands under a foot of snow, many of which are ill-prepared and have lost the electricity supply for many or all of their residents, their pipes have frozen and burst, their solar panels have been damaged beyond repair. Here on Rhodes? Well, in the more elevated regions there has been snowfall, not perhaps to the extent of islands further North or West, but enough to have residents (especially the ones with kids) charging up the mountains in their cars so that their children can have a snowball fight, something which it's quite possible they'll not have the opportunity to do again for many years. Maybe build a snowman or two as well.

Here in the South East of the island, well, I took these pictures in Pefkos yesterday. Judge for yourself...

These first three were taken at the shells of some new builds way up in the heavens a very long way out from the centre of the village. These shells have been like this since we arrived in 2005. So, if you fancy putting in a ridiculous offer for somewhere that you absolutely can't live or stay in without a vehicle...

A bit tricky to describe exactly, but you can see where we live from here, way across the bay.

It may be a long way from anywhere, but at least the view is amazing.

As you can see, we're still snow-less and liable to remain so, but that doesn't stop the temperature plunging to record lows at night. last night we had -1ºC, and there have been reports from villages not all that far from us of frozen pipes. Fortunately for us here, it looks like that may have prevailed probably only for a short period, maybe an hour or two before dawn, because all our waterworks are still functioning today, thankfully.

I filled up the car at Lardos Beach yesterday and, since I'd decided that, to comply with the new laws about card use, I'd pay by plastic, I actually got out of the car, which normally (and mercifully!) one doesn't have to do here in Rhodes, yet. I still suffer from forecourt shock if I drive when back in the UK these days. I drive on to the forecourt and open my window, start to get really irritated at how long the pump attendant is taking to get to me, before my sweet better half says something like, "Waiting for Armageddon are we dear?" Only then do I remember that over there you have to do it all yourself, which is something I've now come to resent greatly.

Anyway, since I didn't want to hand my card over to anyone else, despite the very low risk of fraud at the local village filling station, I got out and, before trotting into the office, found myself having a natter with the bloke who was filling the car up. He told me that the last time they'd seen snow in Lardos village was back in the 1980s. Doesn't look like they're going to see it this time around either.

So, core plugs, why core plugs? Well, just for a panicky moment, when I considered how low the temperature had fallen overnight, I got to thinking about my car's engine. When we first came to Rhodes and had a much older vehicle, I used to top up the radiator with water. 'Something one would never need in this climate, I theorised, 'would be antifreeze.' I was soon disillusioned of that idea by Gary, the bloke who built our house and was a dab had at all things mechanical. He said: 

"Always put antifreeze in, even out here, because it's not only for stopping your engine from freezing up, it also inhibits corrosion and clogging in the vehicle's water cooling system." Thus, you should not only use it, you need to use it, especially with the kind of water you get here, so full, as it is, of mineral salts.

I have vivid memories of two specific occasions during winters back in the UK. One was when we lived in a place called Beddau, in South Wales (pronounced by the locals "bather") back in the 1990s. We had a lot of snow, which had then thawed, but during the thaw we'd seen the overnight temperatures plummet to way below zero and at the time my car was kept on a driveway, but with no shelter over it. Not only me, but several of my neighbours discovered early one morning that our engines had frozen solid. Antifreeze only works down so far. I had to get one of those low paraffin heaters and place it under the engine bay of the car for a few hours before I could risk trying to start it up without damage.

Longer ago than that, back in the 70s when we still lived in our home town of Bath, I'd stood in the drive of my friend's house during a wickedly cold spell and we'd opened his bonnet (hood, guys) together to see if we could get his car going. It was a Morris Marina, if I remember right, and when we peered down at the engine the core plugs were sticking out on either side of the block like alien eyes attached to stalks, which were composed of solid ice. It was so cold that the engine coolant had frozen and the expanding ice had forced the core plugs out, which was the first time I even realised that they existed. Seems it's what they're designed for. No core plugs and you get a split engine block instead.

Of course, my transatlantic friends, especially those living in the Rocky Mountains or in Canada, will right now (assuming anyone over there is actually reading this stuff) be thinking "what a bunch of woosses." See, I know, 'cos I have friends in Canada, that the cars over there have block heaters that keep the engine just above freezing overnight, thus avoiding damage and enabling the owner to start it up in the morning. In the UK they're just not prepared when such arctic conditions arrive, since it's not that often that they do.

So, here in Rhodes, although many folk in the UK are once again saying "it's warmer here than there", I'm afraid it's not actually the case. When they say in the UK that "it's mild" during winter, they mean it's maybe 10ºC. Here we still consider 10ºC in the day to be darned cold. Not that I like getting into this constant competition about what it's doing here compared to what it's doing there anyway.

The fact is, Greece is indeed in the grips of the coldest winter spell for many years and, although it's making for some spectacular photos on Facebook, it is causing some real serious problems for some islands and mainland areas.

Fortunately for us here in Kiotari, it's only causing us to bank the log burner up slightly more than usual.

My core plugs are still in place.

Postscript from Monday evening, Jan. 9th...

The TV news is talking about the worst snow in Greece for over 40 years and it is very bad in places. These photos were taken of last night's bulletin and the captions explain them:

This is Kymi, near the North coast of the island of Evia, where the report says they are "entombed for the 4th day, submerged in darkness with no electricity or running water."

Same report as above, just a different picture. I've never seen anything like it in Greece, apart from the mountainous regions to the North where there are ski resorts. 

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Socks Still On, But Only Just

It's the middle of the night and outside it sounds like the world is coming to an end. We don't get this kind of weather all that often, but usually at least once during a Rhodean winter it blows like the roof is about to fly away. I feel somewhat like Dorothy must have felt when she was swept away by the tornado, along with her trusty dog Toto of course.

It's a little past 12.30am and the rain is beating against the windows and it sounds like every ghoul is on the prowl. You feel so helpless when it's after midnight and there's no moon, at least, if there were it wouldn't do any good because the clouds are thick and dark and dropping their load by the ton at a forty five degree angle. You can only speculate about what you're going to find when it gets light in the morning. Hopefully all the patio furniture is secure on the sheltered terrace under the portico outside. We've pulled the umbrellas out of their bases, rolled them up and stashed them under cover. No doubt there will be a lot of leaves who've given up trying to hang on to the trees around us and many of which will be swirling in menacing circles around the courtyard as I type.

It's the noise that unsettles you. It's so dark when you attempt to peer out of the window that you know there's nothing you can do except hope that the electricity holds out until dawn. Anything left undone or not battened down outside before it got dark and the storm got under way, well, it's too late now. What's to be outside will be. We'll pick up the pieces tomorrow. Well, later today.

Back at around 1.00pm yesterday afternoon we went for a walk down to the beach. It's a must when the sea's up like it is at the moment. You know, the distance from our front door to the water's edge is around a kilometre and a half, say a 20 minute walk. We can do that walk without having to traipse along a tarmac road, it's dirt track from the front gate to the beach, with just one spot where momentarily we cross a road and continue on the track. The sky was blue with rolling clouds and the temperature very mild. Not at all like it's forecast to be by tonight (Saturday) and into Sunday. Sakis, our trusted TV meteorologist, who posts his video forecasts for his devotees on his Facebook page on the days when he's not doing it on the telly, has forecast that we shall probably be experiencing the coldest daytime temperatures since years before we moved out here, back in August 2005. This now is our twelfth winter on Rhodes. It's predicted to be single figures in ºC all day on Sunday, something extremely rare for this part of the Aegean.

Much of Greece is already under thick snow. It's a huge contrast to last winter, which was abnormally mild and nowhere near as wet as it ought to be. Just as well for the thousands of poor wretched refugees who spent much of it walking from Greece to Germany, trying to break through hastily erected fences along some of the borders that they encountered. Had they been making that trek this week, thousands more would be dying of exposure without a doubt.

Yet yesterday at the beach, it was bracing, brisk, invigorating, exhilarating. The sea roared in a way that always puts us in mind of past weekends spent with friends in Cornwall. Here, take a look at the photos I took...

When I stand on our drive and look down the valley to the sea, most of the time the only sounds I can hear (apart from the neighbour's dogs now and again from further up the hill) are birds of prey, a few song birds, crows, sheep and goats. I hear the breeze rustling the huge leathery leaves on our rubber tree in the garden. I don't usually hear the sound of the sea. When the winds are strong and southerly though, as they are at the moment, it's quite astounding how the sea's roar travels up the valley and fills your ears, blocking out of your consciousness all other sounds. The waters crashing on the shore a kilometre and a half below can be heard up here like a persistent roar and it's impressive, humbling, awesome.

My father always loved the sound of water in any of its forms, whether that be trickling in a brook, tumbling over a waterfall or crashing in great waves on to the shore line. I know I'm my father's son.

As I've been typing and the time has been ticking onward, the wind has abated. Sakis said it would swing around by dawn to a more northerly direction. When it's in the north we're laughing, since this house is tucked snuggly into the hillside. The rise behind us is easily as high as the roof. When the winds are in the north we can walk a few metres around the bend in the lane outside and risk being blown off of our feet, whereas right here in the garden you could set up a table and umbrella and take your lunch under a warming winter sun.

Maybe not this weekend though, I don't have any thermal underwear any more, not since moving out here. Plus, the wind's still mainly southwesterly and threatening to, were I to step outside, blow my socks off.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Sounding Off. An Essay.

This contents of this post (with perhaps some changes) will actually appear as chapter 4 in the upcoming new book "A Jay in the Jacaranda Tree", which is a memoir of over a decade of living on Rhodes (we moved here from the UK in 2005). I thought I'd shove some excerpts from the book on the blog from time to time.

Right now I'm up to a little over 10,000 words in writing the book. This is the only chapter that's perhaps not so centred around day-to-day living, just in case it puts you off!
Anyway, here goes...

4. Politics

Let me preface this piece by explaining my stance on this subject. Firstly, I'm a rather apolitical animal. You may or may not agree with me, but then, isn't that what freedom of expression's all about?

Example: why is it that some so-called democratic countries actually punish those who don't vote with fines or even prison sentences? That's not democracy in my book, it's totalitarianism. If someone exercises their right (which it should be in a true democracy) not to vote then that is democracy in action.

I have a CD by Steve Earle, the American musician, and on the sleeve notes it says “If you don't vote – don't beef”. I think he sums it up rather succinctly there. If someone chooses not to vote then that very course of action is a “vote” for non-involvement. It's a right that is implied by the very notion of democracy. The key is, those who don't vote have no right to beef. I accept that. If you're going to gripe about the government or its policies and decisions, then you have to have voted. Otherwise you have forfeited the right to be involved in any debate. But to make that decision has to be a fundamental right in a free society.

So, in this chapter I'm coming at it as a bemused observer, a political layman if you like, which is probably what most ex-pat Brits who come here are, at least at the outset.

When we arrived in Greece in summer 2005 everything seemed rosy in the garden. Kostas Karamanlis and his New Democracy party were in power and most people had no idea what was brewing behind the scenes. No doubt there were folk in the know, like the bloke who became Finance Minister under the first ever Syriza government which took power in January of 2015, Yanis Varifocals, sorry Varoufakis, but most people had no inkling of what was to come.

See, the first thing I notice that's wrong with the system here is that there are simply too many parties. There are so many that it's an incredibly difficult task for any individual party to win an overall majority in an election. In fact, something that many are unaware of is that Syriza, who are in power under Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras while I write this, is in fact not a party at all, but rather a coalition of at least six parties. Even if you count Syriza as one party (which as you've just seen - it isn't) these are the current political parties existing and campaigning every time there's an election in Greece:

New Democracy
Golden Dawn
Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK)
Communist Party of Greece
The River (not so far as I am aware, a tribute to the great Bruce Springsteen album)
Independent Greeks (ANEL)
Union of Centrists (EK)
Popular Unity
Ecologist Greens
Democratic Left
Christian Democratic Party of the Overthrow (XRIKA)
Reformers for Democracy and Development
Course of Freedom
Society First
Popular Unions of Bipartisan Social Groups
Popular Orthodox Rally
Movement of Democratic Socialists
More souvlaki for the downtrodden (OK, I made that one up)... about twenty more (true!).

Get the picture? In the USA there are two parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. In the UK, granted, there are a few more, but by and large it's still a three or four horse race. Even then, the UK has recently seen a coalition government go virtually the full term when the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats were uneasy bedfellows from 2010 until 2015, the first coalition government in the UK since the Second World War.

Looking at the picture here in Greece one can see from the outset how unstable the system is. Small wonder that election follows election as no party finds it easy to win a clear majority. Of course the same applies here as in virtually every other democratic country on the planet too, which is: once a party wins the general election there's the short honeymoon period when their supporters shout about how the world's now going to be an infinitely better place. A few months then pass and it becomes clear that no miracles are going to be worked and the disillusionment sets in. Before long there are calls for another general election, people want 'change' and off we go again. Animal Farm.

Never has the expression 'talk is cheap' been more true than during election campaigns. 

Of course Mr. Karamanlis, on realising that something was soon going to hit the fan, especially as his party had presided over the vast expenditure of cash the country didn't have that was the staging of the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004, called an election in 2009 in full awareness that he'd be defeated. That gave him the chance to get out of the kitchen owing to the intense heart that was building day on day. PASOK got in under the new leader George Papandreou and he very soon declared to the country the truth about the state of the Greek finances that his government had inherited.

There are various opinions about what happened then, including some scathing verdicts about George Papandreou. Frankly, as an unbiased observer, it seemed to me that he was one of that rare breed, an honest politician. He told his country how bad things were, declared that there would need to be some draconian measures taken to try and fix the problem and then went to the country again owing to all the cries of no confidence in him. These cries seemed to me to be a result of people not liking the truth when they heard it. I heard a speech that he gave when he'd not been in power for long. In it he said, in essence, “I'm going to do what's right for the country, no matter whether it's popular or not, no matter what it may mean for my position as Prime Minister, or indeed my political career. I'm going to do what needs to be done and it's going to hurt all of us.”

Result? In the ensuing election he was voted out. Then came a “government of national unity” that was anything but. Then Mr. Samaras, the new leader of the New Democracy party was asked to form a government, also a coalition, then came the Syriza era under Mr. Tsipras. Syriza was elected on a “no more austerity” ticket, which just about sums up all that's wrong with democracy. I'd liken the situation to a family. Let's face it, there are many similarities. A country needs to live alongside its neighbours and trade with them. It needs to earn its living in the world and 'cut the coat according to the cloth'. No cloth means no coat.

Put it this way, a set of parents give their son £10 per week pocket money. Then the father loses his job. Now with only one income coming in they can barely pay the mortgage and scarcely feed the three of them from week to week. Dad and mum say to their son, “Son, we can no longer give you £10 per week while the economic situation is as it is. You'll have to make do with £4 until we see more money coming into the house, whenever that may be.” The son says, “I'm not having this! I want my £10 and you'd better give it to me.” Where's that £10 going to come from? It's simply not there. Mr. Tsipras was elected on a similar wave of the public's refusal to accept the reality of the situation. The public don't want to see their income reduced. That's understandable of course. But if the country's budget is over-stretched, if the balance of payments is so seriously in the red, there isn't much any government can do about it.

Here is where I return to the “talk is cheap” analogy. It's so easy for a party to campaign with a raft of promises because these are mere words. The facts are that whatever Syriza promised, (we'll kick out the Troika, we'll stop reducing pensions, we'll do this and we'll do that...”) it was never going to be able to deliver, but the public elected them because the'd been told what they wanted to hear. Going back to Mr. Papandreou, he told them the truth (“Son, it'll have to be £4 from now on”) and the public didn't want to hear it.

Democracy is where millions of people, largely ignorant of the facts, make decisions based upon their own desire not to see their pocket money reduced. Of course one should have sympathy for the son in the illustration and for the public in cash-strapped Greece. The facts, however, are harsh and the reality clear – everyone in the country will have to suffer fiscally for many years, possible for some peoples' lifetimes, before the country is back on its feet, if it ever will be. If a child runs the family home then disaster is the sure and only result in the end.

I get asked all the time “how has the crisis affected you?” Lots of people also like to opine before even asking. That's why the numbers of people from northern Europe taking their summer holidays in Greece dropped once “austerity” kicked in. Vastly over-exaggerated stories about conditions here in Greece were circulated in the media in the UK, Germany, Poland, Scandinavia etc. - all the countries which form the backbone of the Greek tourism industry.

For instance, as a part time job I do a few excursions during the summer season. Without exception, every week for the past few years, especially soon after the news broke about how bad things were financially for Greece, I've found myself having the same conversation with guests from those countries referred to above. Usually my guests are die-hard Grecophiles who will come to Greece whatever happens because they love the country. They are usually sensible enough to see through all the hyped up lies in the media. Yet so many of them have said to me, “Our friends back home were horrified when we told them we were coming to Greece. They said things like 'You're going THERE? Is it SAFE? Surely there's no money in the Bank ATMs, no food in the hotels and tavernas, widespread begging on the streets, crime and violence everywhere.”

I'm not exaggerating. Repeat visitors have told me how, when they got home from the previous holiday here on Rhodes, their neighbours, workmates or family said things like “Aren't you glad to be back home. It must have been awful for you.”

OK, so it's a little different on the islands from the cities and the mainland, but all the same, my wife and I spent three days staying at a hotel slap bang in the centre of Athens in July 2014 and still we felt it a safer city to walk around at night than London. You know what a perip'tero is, its one of those kiosks that sells newspapers, drinks, confectionery and cigarettes and they're to be found along pavements all over Greece. We walked back from Monastira'ki to our hotel, which was situated on the street that leads from Omonia Square to Syntagma (you can't get much more downtown that that) after midnight and those kiosks were closed for the night. Most of them have wooden eaves around which are hung the current copies of newspapers and magazine, attached to a string with wooden clothes pegs. As we walked home in the streets the shutters on the two or three perip'tera that we passed were rolled down, but the papers and magazines had been left on those pegs for the night. With no wish to denigrate my home country (and hopefully avoid kneejerk comments from UK readers), I can't see anyone doing such a thing there. Those periodicals would have been trashed, stolen or possibly set alight.

On the islands the vast majority of tourists who have decided to come for their holidays will tell you that it was as enjoyable as ever. The sunshine is still the same, the cuisine is the same, the welcoming people are the same and the scenery too. For many people on holiday, if they didn't know there was a crisis they'd probably never have guessed.

As for us ex-pats living here, each must tell his or her own story. In our case the only appreciable effect that the financial crisis has had on us has been the cost of fuelling up the car. When we arrived in August 2005, petrol (OK... gasoline, guys) was about 85 cents per litre. That translated into around 60p in the UK, where it was selling for more like 90p. So in effect we were paying 60% of the UK price for our petrol. Today, in December 2016 we're probably paying 120% of what we'd be paying in the UK. Of course we have Greek friends who are on pensions who have seen their income cut by 40%. We have friends working in the tourism industry, especially those working in hotels, who have been made to wait for their wages for months at a time.

As for that last fact, I could be quite wrong but I see it as the greedy hotel owners using the financial crisis as an excuse. The hotels to this day are still doing a roaring trade and the cash is flowing in thick and fast. Too many lowly staff (room cleaners, bar staff, waiters and waitresses) have been paid perhaps for the first month or two of the season, say May and June, then been told that they can't be paid until the end of the season or even later. It's scandalous and puts these hardworking people under extreme financial duress. Many of these folk are Albanians or Bulgarians and live in rented accommodation. By the time the season ends they are several months behind with their rent and have been borrowing money to do their food shopping. They haven't been able to pay their electricity bills. Yet all the time they cheerfully serve the hotel guests as these laze around the pools and eat and drink to their heart's content in complete ignorance regarding what the staff who serve them are enduring.

At one hotel near us here in Kiotari, a couple of seasons ago an Albanian friend of ours organised a staff walk-out during September. None of the waged staff had received a bean since the end of June and they were desperate. In Rhodes town there is even reputed to be a union representing hotel workers, but for all the good it does it may as well be selling souvlaki. What did the hotel management do? They sacked all the strikers with immediate effect and hired new ones. There are that many people out there wiling to work in such conditions. In fact, our friend told us that he was owed a couple of thousand Euros when he was fired. He eventually got called into the hotel in November and told he'd have to accept €900 or nothing. That was the first actual income he'd received since the end of June. On top of that, each time he applied for a job for the following season he discovered that the hotel owners and management had been circulating his name to ensure that he didn't get hired. He has a wife and two children under ten by the way.

Eventually a restaurateur in Pefkos gave him a job, but not until he'd had to beg to be given the chance to prove what a good worker he was. Whilst my sister and her husband were out here staying with us we went out to eat there and saw for ourselves just how good our friend was at his job. He was the one smiling and laughing with the guests, while it was all the owner could do to acknowledge a “good evening” from his guests with a grunt.

Returning to politics then, as is par for the course, after 23 months in government Syriza is now being called a bunch of liars and Alexis Tsipras a betrayer. He got in on a wave of bravado. He was going to tell Europe what was what. Greece wasn't going to be bullied. Greece wasn't going to kow tow. After a visit or two to Brussels he and his finance minister at the time, Mr. Varifocals, sorry Varoufakis, soon got their reality check and discovered what life was like in the real world. The compromises that the PM agreed were too much for Yanis Varoufakis, who subsequently resigned. Give the man his due, he wanted to stick to his principles, something that most politicians find it simply impossible to do.

Where will Greece be in five years time, ten years time? The only thing I can say, in my humble, layman's opinion is this: Greece needs tourists, so please come.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Planning and Forethought

"You are coming, aren't you" said Irini.

"Coming where?" I asked in reply.

"Tonight. Our place. We're barbecuing and there's a crowd coming over."

Irini said this to me at around noon a few days ago. As is readily apparent from the reported conversation above, the invitation was for the very same evening. It well illustrates a cultural difference between us Brits and the Greeks. It pretty much goes without saying that whatever they organise, they'll be sure and let everyone know at the very last minute. It equally applies to weddings. In the fairly large circle of Greek friends amongst which we now move, if there's a wedding coming up we'll usually get a nice posh printed invitation handed to us no more that a fortnight before the wedding is due to take place. In our old lives back in the UK we'd know months in advance about a wedding but here, drop everything and hope you've nothing too important planned, or you won't make it to the big day.

I suppose it shouldn't be a big deal, but we (as in the better half and I) find it really hard to adjust to this particular trait of our Greek friends. We like plenty of warning. We like to know well in advance what we're doing. To most Greeks, this is simply unheard of. Of course, my beloved and I have different reasons for not liking things to be sprung upon us. 

In my case it's more to do with that comfy feeling of having planned a quiet evening at home with my feet up. In winter that may of course involve a couple of planned TV programmes and the log-burner flickering away reassuringly. Maybe a good book or the headphones and iPod humming along nicely while I splay out on the sofa, glass of wine situated within grasping distance on the coffee table. To be honest, although we absolutely love living up a mountainside, a kilometre of dirt track separating us from the main road, it can be a bit of an impediment to our social lives during the darker evenings of winter. That whole thing of having to get the car out and driving somewhere is dead difficult when you've got the subdued lighting going in the lounge, the flames from the fire are flickering alluringly and you don't have to worry about that extra glass of vino because you don't have to drive anywhere.

On the other hand, my wife has to consider for far longer than simply a few hours what she's going to wear to the occasion in question. It simply doesn't do to only have part of an afternoon to think about what kind of event we've been invited to and what sort of attire and footwear would be appropriate. 

Plus, a major factor this time of the year is how warm are we going to be? A surprisingly large number of people seem to be quite happy sitting in their own lounges while the temperature is so low you can see your breath - indoors. Me and the significant other are at one on this, having come home in the past with our legs feeling like iced lollies from the knees down and then found it impossible to get ourselves back up to operational temperature for the rest of the night, even with our feet resting on hot water bottles in the bed, we're loathe to accept an invitation when we suspect that the real intention is to use us as an experiment in cryogenics.

Have you noticed too, chaps, how difficult it is for a female to actually leave the building? We've set a time for departure - that is, of course, on those occasions when we actually do venture out during the winter evenings - of, lets say 8.00pm. This will invariably mean that at about ten to eight I'll be grabbing the keys from the hook on the wall and calling through the bedroom door that "I'm getting the car out." 

Coming back through the door will be the words, "Nearly ready!"

Oh dear. I'll go outside, reverse the car out from the car port, open the gates, drive the car out on to the lane, leave the engine ticking over while I get out, come back in through the gate and close it in case of hares, sheep, goats or the neighbours' dogs, then trot across the drive to the terrace, still seeing no sign of the front door even threatening to open, pop my head inside and shout, "We going then?"

"All right!" will come the reply. After a further minute or two with no appreciable change to the situation I'll have no option but to slip off my shoes again, go inside and see what the situation is. Opening the bedroom door I'll see the light of my life sitting in front of her dressing table mirror, perhaps brushing her hair, while from the waist down she's still only in a slip or maybe underwear and tights.

"Umm," I'll begin, very conscious of the need to try and keep things on a conciliatory level, "I thought you said you were nearly ready. We did say eight and it's two minutes to."

As if I hadn't said anything I'll then be asked my opinion about skirt or trousers, whether it ought to be the brown belt or the black one, which shoes look best and will I please just apply a little hairpsray to the back of the hair. Then the top will come off and she'll decide that it will be a dress after all, but that may necessitate a change of bangle around the neck and so on.

Even when she's finally dressed and has a handbag over one arm, there will be the need to take a good look around the bedroom, as if she's never seen it before. 

"Do I need a cardigan or jacket?" She'll ask. About now I'm internally hopping up and down because it's past eight and we're running late. By the time she gets to the lounge and approaches the front door and my hopes are rising that we may actually leave she'll decide that one last look at all the windows in the place is required, in case we've left any of them unlocked. Then it'll be "I'll just have a wee before we go."

C'mon chaps, you've all been there, right?

The worst bit is when we're half way down the lane to the road and she'll ask me, "you did lock the front door and close the bathroom window didn't you?" It doesn't make any difference after that as to how certain you are that you'd done those things. The doubts set in and you agonise all evening over whether you did them or not.

Our landlord John is over here at the moment. He's only here for four days as he's come over to drive his 4x4 back to the UK. Anyone living here (and doubtless any number of other countries) will know that you can't keep a UK registered vehicle here for longer than so many months. John brings his Jeep Commander over here so that he can tow his boats around when the family's here for their holidays. He needs, however, to take it out of Greece now and again and so he's here to drive it back on Boxing Day, when he'll be catching the ferry from Rhodes very early in the morning. Yesterday he had to go to Rhodes town to see a number of important people about stuff and so he asked if we'd like to go along for the ride. It would give us a chance to do some odd bits of shopping and have a coffee somewhere while he went to his meetings, then share a snack lunch and do some food shopping before heading home again.

Cue the scenario I described above. There was John, outside in the Commander, engine ticking over outside the front gates at a couple of minutes after our planned departure time. There was I, standing where he could see me from the car, outside our front door tapping my tootsies impatiently while we both awaited the emergence of my dearly beloved. That car's engine is 5.7 litres. Must have guzzled a gallon or two while he waited, bless him.

Anyway, we made it into town and the heavens opened. Fortunately, we just had time to walk into the town itself from where we'd told John to drop us (San Francisco), since he had to meet his accountant some way out of town near to Rodini Park. We decided that the first port of call needed to be a café for two reasons: 1. it was going to pour down any moment and 2. we both needed the loo.

It was great. We got ourselves settled in the Yachting Club Café, ordered our filter coffees and watched the sheets of rain and flashes of lightning outside. Then we moved tables after five minutes owing to the fact the the precise spot where our table was situated was the one place where after a few minutes of torrential rain, it got in and cascaded down all over the table from several feet above our heads.

Bit disappointed in this shot really. I'd hoped that the torrential rain outside would be evident, but it isn't. You'll just have to trust me.

Never mind, we were able to sit out the worst of the rain and then do a bit of shopping, dodging the huge puddles and touting our seldom-used umbrellas.

On the way back I suddenly remembered. I'd promised Irini the day before that I'd ring her when I got home to tell her whether or not we'd be able to come to that get-together. Ah well, she'd only asked me at the last minute. No planning, no forethought. Her and her hubby will already know that we couldn't make it. 

Now, if she'd given me a week or two's notice...

Thursday, 15 December 2016

A Hamfisted Heist and a Handful of Photos

The Hamfisted Heist story...

A couple of days ago there was a bank robbery in Faliraki. It was straight out of an old Woody Allen movie and the police had arrested the villain within three hours of the "job" having been done.

"Take the Money and Run" is one of my all-time favourite Woody Allen movies. I especially loved the scene where the culprit, Virgil Starkwell, played by Woody Allen, is casing the bank that he's going to rob. He hides a camera in a loaf of bread then goes into the bank and holds the loaf up to his eye like you would with a normal, undisguised camera. Plus, the lens is sticking out of the front of the loaf. It's a bit of a dead giveaway.

Well, this fella, a 30 year-old Greek from Kremasti, had sat on and off for a couple of days in the café across the road from the EuroBank branch that he intended to hold up, watching the comings and goings to plot the best time for his heist. While he sat there he was wearing a jacket and a cap.

On the day of the heist he nicked a motorbike and put on a blonde wig, then, wearing the same jacket and hat that he'd been wearing while rather suspiciously sitting in the café and gazing at the bank across the road, he entered the bank toting a gun and demanded that he be given lots of cash. He walked out with around €17,000 in used notes, got on the motorbike and tore off triumphantly.

Half an hour later he was sitting in his favourite kafeneion at Kremasti, not far from his home, still wearing the same cap and jacket. The only thing he'd dispensed with was the wig. Of course, the police had been called to the bank, interviewed various members of staff and had also asked in the café over the road if anyone had seen anything, which or course they had. They circulated the suspect's description and within a couple of hours the report came in that a man fitting the description of the suspect was flashing his money about in his local over in Kremasti. 

The heist was at around 11.00am. At around 2.00pm he had his collar felt, turned around to see a view full of policeman and was told that he was under arrest.

I wonder if he looked surprised. Somehow I think there's room for doubt.

The thing is, more news about this story breaking today, a day or two after the heist, says that he was very, very hard up and owed thousands on his electricity bill. If your neighbours know you're in such straightened circumstances, it may just be a tad suspicious to suddenly be waving wads of cash about just after the local TV has reported a bank robbery not too far away. Every café does have TV screens which are on most of the time after all.

He's also reported today as telling the boys in blue that he's deeply sorry, acted on the spur of the moment and "won't do it again guv'nor, honest." Well, that last bit may be colloquialised in a British fashion just a smidgin, but you get the picture. It is, however, hard to maintain that you acted on impulse when you've already been seen casing the bank for several days prior to the actual heist taking place. Plus, does he always carry a gun around with him then?

I do get the impression that he may well be spending some time as a guests of the government fairly soon. 

Now, of course, if his financial situation really is dire, or even if it isn't, isn't the issue here. The whole story just highlights the difference between crime on a Greek island and crime in a larger, mainland area or perhaps city. When I'm working in the summer doing the excursions, I often end up chatting about various aspects of life on a Greek island and how it all compares with the UK, Germany or perhaps (these days) Poland. On the subject of crime I always say that the crime levels on an island like this are significantly lower than in mainland urban areas, which applies as much to such areas in Greece as well as in other countries.

The bank robbery story is big news here precisely because it's a fairly rare occurrence. That said, it is something we are hearing more frequently than we did ten years ago. Cue talk about the financial crisis, austerity and all that stuff, eh?

And the Handful of Photos Story...

Changing the subject completely, here are a bunch of photos from the past few weeks. I may have posted one or two of these on my "JM Published Works" Facebook page, so you might just have seen them. Hope you like 'em anyway:

Glystra Beach 17th November.

Pefkos main beach, also 17th November.

Chairs and table at the local service station just outside of Gennadi village. 13th December.

The sea (from our garden) showing some "lumps" on 14th December.

St. Paul's Bay, Lindos, 11th December. 25ºC - nice eh?

A sight that gets a Rhodean resident much more excited than those scenic shots above, a full wood-store with the cold nights coming on.

The winter schedule settles around us imperceptibly. In the past couple of days the shepherd in the Seat Ibiza is back. His flock enjoys decimating the garden cuttings we throw across the lane, thus helping keep the environment clean and tidy. It IS all green waste, I should add.

Throws hands up and admits, "I'm as crazy about baby lambs as the next old softie."


Sunday, 11 December 2016

Fruit and the Lack of It

Mihalis wasn't looking too cheery. Our friend with the ducks, hens and rabbits didn't feel much like smiling. His expression was prompted in part by my enquiry,

"Harvested your olives then Mihali?" I asked. Bad question.

"Finished Yianni," he replied, with a face like he'd lost a tenner and found five Pounds. "Ten days, all done. I'll have to buy oil this year, my reserves are now so low."

"No chance you may have some to sell me then?" I asked. In retrospect it was probably not the most tactful question to put at that moment. In the past Mihalis has often just given us bottles of oil whenever he's remembered to do so, often amounting to five litres in a calendar month. One time, probably eight years ago now if my reckoning is correct, he did let us pay him because I presented him with my 30 kilo barrel and asked him if he could fill it for us. Of course on that occasion I made sure he understood that I wanted to pay him. It was, though, the cheapest oil purchase we've ever made.

Mihalis' olive harvest is usually a three-week affair. That's three weeks of seven days a week, 8.00am starts and 4.00pm finishes, resulting in his driving his battered ancient old Suzuki Swift to the mill, taking his harvest in sacks there over two journeys. It's always struck me as odd that he still has a car and not a 4x4. In fact his car is a similar model to the one we had for our first six years here, except that ours was a hatchback and his has a boot (trunk, guys). He does, nevertheless, always manage. I won't say that his is a car that I'd want, though, to be offered a lift in while wearing smart-casual.

He looked at me all world-weary. "No rain Yianni. The olives are halia this year." Ηalia [Χάλια] basically translates as lousy, awful, they suck. Yes, we have had a bit of rain this past couple of weeks, but we'd need heavy rain for five days out of seven for the next couple of months to catch up on the deficit. When it mattered most, last winter and this October, it didn't rain (or didn't rain enough) and thus the olives didn't fatten up. OK, so there will be some (a few I'd say) who'll say their olives are OK, owing to their trees being situated where their micro-climate maybe helped by protecting their moisture levels, but as a general rule, we're looking at a shortage.

Hey ho, so it'll probably be off to the mill for us to buy some oil to stop us running dry. We probably get through about two litres a month and we don't have enough to get us through the winter now.

At least, although there may be a distinct shortage of olive oil, there is no lack of citrus fruit. You can always tell what time of the year it is by looking at the fruit bowl in our house...

And, apart from the tommies, this lot didn't cost us a penny

And before your eyebrows make a sturdy attempt to rise so far up your forehead as to be hidden by your fringe, you may wish to know that those "in the know", as it were, will always say that the best place for your tomatoes is in a bowl at room temperature with the rest of the fruit, rather than in the fridge. And not just because they are officially classed botanically as a fruit either. 

Our fruit bowl always looks like this from December through January and often beyond, largely because just about every Greek friend we have has citrus trees and they invariably have far too much fruit to eat themselves, luckily for us.

In fact, my dearly beloved often ends up juicing ours before they go "off" owing to the sheer quantity we usually receive. I know I've probably said it before, but when you eat oranges or mandarins that you've either picked yourself, or were grown not a stone's throw away, you get spoilt. Their flavour is that good. It's one of the great joys of the winter season. It's also why the only houses, or rooms, in which you'll see oranges in a bowl during the summer months will be in accommodation where tourists are staying. No self-respecting Rhodean resident will eat such tasteless matter, which has probably been shipped several thousand miles to reach the shops here. If you buy your oranges down the road in the local greengrocer's, you won't see them on sale there during the summer months. 

Mihalis, at least, does have oranges on his trees. He perked up when I mentioned those. Don't ask me why there doesn't seem to be such a crisis with the citrus fruit as there is with the olive harvest this year. The answer is quite beyond me.

It's not something I'll fret about, as long as I can peel a scrumptious navel while we're doing our couch-potato thing while watching Strictly. Bliss.