Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Hello Suzi (Not the Old Amen Corner Hit!)

I've now compiled a list of 15 questions, which I'll be using as the basis for an occasional series of interviews with authors who write on a Greek theme to be posted here on RFR. Links to these interviews can be found down the left hand column, under the imaginatively titled section "The Interviews". Suzi Stembridge is the first to be subjected to my 15...

Suzi Stembridge fell for Greece instantly the aircraft doors were open on the tarmac at Athens Airport in 1960 and the smells of the sea and the thyme on Hymettos flooded the aircraft cabin. She is constantly amazed at how Greece and the Greeks have conspired with fate to make her life almost exclusively about this beautiful country, although she admits to a love of her birth county Yorkshire as well. After holidaying in Greece and her islands almost every year it is not surprising that her creative talents were channeled into building up two travel businesses FILOXENIA & GRECO-FILE almost exclusively for tailor-made Greek holidays and, when the business sold, to the creation of eight novels, one historical quartet - GREEK LETTERS - one more contemporary quartet - THE COMING OF AGE. When she was studying with the Open University one of her subjects was Ancient Greek history and culture. She and her husband also found a beautiful piece of land, an olive grove overlooking the sea near Leonidio, in the Peloponnese, on which they built a house. They have two adult children. Suzi says that they feel blessed, particularly to be able explore vast areas of Greece and experience the true hospitality this country offers, hence the name of their travel company!

Suzi's books are all set primarily in Greece and she seems set to add to them for some time to come. I caught up with her recently to find out what makes her tick and why she loves Greece so much. The captions under some of the photos are written by Suzi herself.

1. Where do you live?

We live on the Pennine hills in West Yorkshire between Halifax and Huddersfield.

2. What do you write about?
I write historical and contemporary fiction, most of which has a Greek bias, either being set or partly set in Greece with other scenes in the UK, particularly Yorkshire, Wales and NW England. (One book is partly set in Cyprus – BRIGHT DAFFODIL YELLOW). Many of my characters seem to like to travel, so much of Europe has been covered in the whole series which I have called JIGSAW. Jigsaw comprises two Quartets, THE GREEK LETTERS QUARTET which starts towards the end of the Greek War of Independence in 1827 and finishes in the present decade around 2011, and a second Quartet THE COMING OF AGE with a time span from 1960 to the present decade. The protagonists in these Quartets make up a family saga, with Rosalind, her son and her great-great grandfather being the main characters.

Book covers for the first three volumes of GREEK LETTERS

3. Why Greece?
Well you might well ask! In 1960 as a rooky air hostess I travelled to Greece on my first flight as aircrew, which coincidently was almost my first flight. 

I was bowled over and the first book I wrote but not the first I published, CAST A HOROSCOPE subtitled DOORS TO MANUAL, covers this embryonic love affair. But when I met my husband in 1965 we had to go to Greece (Corfu) for our honeymoon, and the love affair became a passion. In a tiny open top Fiat 500 we travelled the length and breadth of Corfu, (THE SCORPION’S LAST TALE) as far as one could because the north was still under military control, and most roads were truly dirt tracks. By the 1970s we were using any excuse possible to travel to Greece, exploring all the islands we visited with extensive motor excursions, up mountainsides, down river-beds, Rhodes, (my first visit in 1960 showed Lindos with no-one or anything on the beaches!), Karpathos, Symi, Leros, and by the 80s when I was asked to write the brochures for a tour operator and then sell their holidays I did so. I was studying with the Open University at the time but as soon as I graduated I found myself starting my own travel agency GRECO-FILE followed by my own tour operation FILOXENIA. By the time we retired we had visited almost all areas of mainland Greece, especially the Peloponnese, Thessaly and Epirus and the major islands of the Ionian, Aegean and Crete. So with the business sold we found another dirt track starting up a mountain leading to a small plateau with an olive grove and there we built a small house.

4. How long does it take you to write a book?
It takes about 6 months to draft out a book, and then ‘how long is a piece of string’ to get it to the point where I am happy to let it go.

5. What do you enjoy most about writing?
I love planning out a book and particularly the research. It has been a passion to check the facts, making sure that they are accurate. Studying for my Open University degree taught me the importance of primary and secondary sources. If I say it was sunny on a certain date – it was! It is a great pleasure to sit at my desk in Yorkshire with windows over-looking the hills and the garden and have time to write. When we had our Greek holiday house it was magical to sit under the shade of an olive tree with the sea views and write or edit on a laptop. In this way the GREEK LETTERS QUARTET was conceived and set in the Peloponnese, as was our house!

6. What, in your view, is/has been the greatest gift from Greece to the world?
“Somewhere between Calabria and Corfu the blue really begins,”- No it's not just the light that Lawrence Durrell captured in this quote. But the gift that is Greece is also the amazing mountains, beautiful beaches, the history and precious monuments, the fresh food and wine and mostly that word Filoxenia – meaning friends of strangers, the way that strangers are treated as guests.

7. How do you come up with an idea for a book?
Different books have been conceived for different reason, the first three books in the Coming of Age Series were drafted and typed on a typewriter before I started working full time – and yes put in a drawer. They were conceived as novels with plots based on my early adult life, but not autobiographical. The Greek Letters Quartet was a result of touring all over mainland Greece, becoming very interested in history and travel as we designed tailor-made holidays for our clients. In those days it was frustrating not be able to follow my urge to write, I loved writing our wordy, accurate brochures. On retirement uppermost in my to-do-list was to write a book to help visitors to travel to unspoilt and ‘non-touristy’ areas. And we were aware that tourism can ruin a place. Our clients were encouraged to visit quieter places and hotels in areas where the business would be appreciated. As the books developed I realised they captured an age, a time from the industrial revolution but before the digital age.

8. How do you go about writing, that is to say, are you organised, do your research, disciplined, are you a messy sort who gets it done one way or another?
I am not very organised except in my single-mindedness to work. My study is messy, full of stuff, which might inspire me, lots of books, guide books, dictionaries, maps, paints and drawing blocks, old Greek photographic calendars, an evil eye talisman, primitive oil paintings on hardboard. My favourite bought on my first visit to Greece in 1960s is of drunken singers with a bouzouki serenading under a Plaka balcony with the Acropolis in the background; its tiny mirror image bought in Olymbos on Karpathos, in the 1980s, is the same subject but perhaps less sober singers! Because these 8 books are actually one long family saga, seven generations from 1827 to the present day I have had to keep my mind very well organised to remember who is related to who, keep the dates tidy, and it has been quite a challenge. I am not sure how many people have read all 8 books, although I can see some of my reviewers have done so. Despite this massive link I have also had to work hard to keep each book as an independent and different read.

9. Which other authors do you read?
I read a lot, from the classics to biographies but I am doing very well with the authors from A Good Greek Read: Kathryn Gauci, Effrosyni Moscoudi, your own books, - which truly I have loved! – Ruth Kozak, Daphne Kapsali, Marjory McGinn, Sara Alexi, Pamela Jane Rogers, Yvonne Payne, Stephanie Wood, but it is wrong to single people out, there are so many and so many more to read. My first reads were of course Mary Renault, Lawrence Durrell, Gerald Durrell, John Fowles, Patrick Leigh Fermor, until more recently William Dalrymple, Jeffrey Eugenides, Ian McEwen etc.

10. What's your preferred kind of music?
I love opera, classical music, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, (of course with Lindos holidays!) ancient stuff like Frank Sinatra and even today’s music.

11. Do you like Greek music and if so, which kind?
Again any Greek music from Vangelis to Theodorakis.

12. Favourite Greek dish?
I love fish, any fish, such a treat in Greece but I am as happy with a plate of moussaka or lamb kleftiko.

13. Favourite place in Greece and the reason(s)?
I love most places in Greece, particularly a humble non-touristy fishing village or tiny mountain village miles from anywhere, but particularly I love the Peloponnese where the mountains come down to the sea. Nafplion is a beautiful town, a great place whatever your mood. I like Epirus and Thessaly so a pattern emerges of places with mountains, sea, Byzantine monasteries and churches, ancient sites, ticking my box. 

The perfect church of the Holy Cross, Doliana, Thessaly. Fired during WW2 so no frescoes remain

What I do not like is the crazy architecture of the 1970s, eyesores like the necessary power station in Megalopolis in Arcadia, the unnecessary concrete monstrosity that is the Acheloos Dam, now hopefully abandoned before doing untold damage to the rivers and deltas of eastern Greece. One of our dirt road meanderings brought us face to face with this horrendous desecration in the heart of Pindus.

in the Pindus Mountains near the Acheloos Dam which threatened not only the forested valleys but to divert water away from Western Greece and the delta, with no doubt untold damage. Fortunately in February 2016 this ‘folly’ was shelved.

14.What links would you like the readers to explore in connection with your work, including, of course, sites where your work may be purchased?

...or any good bookshop to order. ISBN: Greek Letters Quartet: 
Vol 1 978-1-78507-021-1;
Vol 2 978-1-78507-116-8; 
Vol 3 978-1-78507-283-3; 
Vol 4 978-1-78507-792-0; 
Cast A Horoscope 978-1-78507-363-2; 
The Glass Class 978-1-78507-628-2.

Website: with synopses of the novels.

15. And finally, reading device or real book?
Either, depending on my mood and location: a Kindle on the beach, in the garden, a book in bed or by a log fire.

Well I hope that you will enjoy this and subsequent interviews, plus perhaps investigate Suzi's work if you haven't already done so.

More occasional interviews will follow in this series as and when I get the time to cross paths with other authors who write on a Greek theme. Each new one will be listed in "The Interviews" which can be found in the left hand column.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Fancy Meeting You/Ladies Second (!?)

Stacy and I. She's not a stranger any longer of course.
I forgot to mention in the post "Above and Beyond" something else that happened the last time I was on Halki. There I was sitting supping my tonic in the harbour-front café and being all modern and checking my e-mails on the iPod after having seen my guests off to go exploring when this stranger approached and asked me if I was indeed John Manuel. 

Now, I know what you're thinking, "He's got delusions now. Thinks he's a mega star." Well, there's no need to worry on that score. Have to be honest though, this kind of thing does happen a little more often this past year or two than it used to. I'm only grateful that I'm not a huge household name, because for those folk who are this must happen to them far too often and it no doubt taxes their patience no end.

In my case, however, it's a total delight because I'm always thrilled when someone I've never met tells me that they read my scribblings and derive some pleasure out of them. So, as Stacy Buffham introduced herself I was once again amazed at the power of the internet. Oddly enough she told me that she usually went to another island, Tilos I think, but as I've left this a couple of weeks before mentioning it she'll forgive me if I'm wrong. She'd only come to Halki because she couldn't get in at her preferred destination, but was now so glad that she'd ended up here on Halki.

As usual the island had worked its charm and she was smitten. I've never met a Grecophile who wasn't. Anyway, she and I chatted for probably half an hour before she very graciously decided that she ought to leave me be, despite my assurance that since I wasn't going anywhere for another few hours it was quite nice to have some company. She was, however, conscious of having sprung herself on me without warning and so felt it better not to outstay her welcome. She explained that, having come to Halki she half expected that she might spot me, since as a reader of my "ramblings" she knew that I would be on the island some time during the week.

Just on that thought of the power of the internet, there have been a couple of instances during the past year or two that have astounded me. I was gardening at home a while back when a car drew up outside the gate and a Greek man got out, came to the gate and called for my attention. He and his relatives will forgive me if I again get some details wrong, but the essence was that he lived in Asklipio, but had also lived in Australia for some years and still has relatives over there. His aunt, sister or cousin, or something like that had recently told him that he was now living within a few km of yours truly and, using his intuition from descriptions he'd read in my writings about where we live, he'd come to see if he could find me.

His aunt wanted him to tell me that she was a fan of the blog and so, once he'd established that it was in fact me, he asked if I'd sign a copy of one of the novels so that he could send it off to Australia as a gift. To say I was amazed is to grossly understate things.

I've done my last excursion for this season, sadly. Well, there is a slim possibility that I'll do Rhodes Town again on Tuesday, but it's not very likely, especially after the kind of season we've just had. I am always slightly fazed when the work stops because it's not often possible to wish my friends on the boats, on Halki or in Rhodes Town a kalo heimo'na because I never know that I'm actually there for the last time. What usually happens is the office will call me the following week and say "that's it, we're done." 

On board the Madelena, during a Bay-to-Bay excursion.

Know where this is then?

So I probably won't see my colleague Mihalis again until next season. He amuses me often because he's the first Greek I've actually worked with who's doing excursions. So, needless to say he behaves differently to the xe'noi, the other reps from other countries, like me. On Halki, while the other reps are going for a swim, or perhaps sitting for hours in a café or taverna, Mihalis will be whizzing by on someone's scooter, or perhaps driving someone else's pickup to give a few tourists a lift to the beach or to their accommodation, having met them on the boat coming over. Now and again he'll tootle past on the back of a scooter with a Halkiot friend, fishing tackle clutched in his hands as they nip off to a remote bay for a spot of psa'rema. Just a couple of weeks back he caught two yermanos (dusky spinefoot) and, arriving at my table at Babis Taverna, presented them to me in a carrier bag and told me I could take them home for the barbie. Didn't he want them himself I asked. "Nah," he replied, "already got loads." Mihalis has a master plan and it involves retiring to Halki, where he dreams of a small waterfront home with a βάρκα tied up just outside in which he'll go fishing every day to catch his family's supper. Can't knock a dream like that really.

The Halki team. Mihalis is on the left.

The other day we were invited by some Greek friends to a meal at their home in the remote village of Kattavia. The hosts are a delightful senior couple who actually live (as they have done for many years) in Baltimore, US. There the family have a restaurant (no surprises there then) and their grown-up kids have kids of their own, thus making it very difficult for our friends to move back to Rhodes in their retirement. The house in Kattavia was the home of the wife's mother, who died a year or two back, but as is their habit, our friends come over here every summer for several months, during which Makis, the husband, will beaver away doing maintenance on the property, which is an immaculately maintained cottage built around three sides of a generously-proportioned courtyard. There is a modest orchard to the side, packed with mature fruit trees, all of which have a abundance of unripe fruit hanging on them right now. Inside the cottage there is the traditional stone archway, adding to the old-world feel of the place. They're considering putting it on the market, but are still loathe to do so, since it carries decades of family memories for Stella, the wife, who grew up there.

The guests for the recent soirée numbered about twenty adults and probably four or five children of that "running all over the place" age. At this time of the year we had to arrive at around 6.00pm to get there whilst there was still some daylight, but we all sat in the courtyard as the sky darkened and the stars all popped out and began twinkling to order, the women wrapping light cardigans around their shoulders as the darkness took hold. Me and the beloved couldn't complain though, after all it's the middle of October and here we all were having an al fresco evening with good friends.

Owing to the numbers Stella had decided to do the food as a buffet so that everyone could go and help themselves. She'd done us proud with a sumptuous spread of traditional Greek food, including a plate of chick peas done in a lemon and herb sauce that was simply awesome. There were portions of fried fish, dolmades, a chicken dish for the meat-eaters, a selection of salads and a baked aubergine dish which was also superb. Some of our fellow guests turned up with tapsis full of moussaka, or even cheesecake, so there was no shortage of tucker. All in all a perfect evening. As soon as the food was ready one of the senior male guests was called on to offer brief thanks to the Creator before everyone was invited to head for the food. Makis was unceasing in his tour among the guests wielding a couple of bottles of wine, one a white medium and the other a dry red. As usual the women by and large went for the former and the men the latter, apart from those who opted for a beer of course.

While the younger children gathered in knots in the corner of the courtyard, their faces glowing in the light of their mobile phones as they busily shared texts and games together, the adults were called upon to head for the food. This was when I discovered something about the culture that I don't remember having noticed before. It was something that, if I'm honest, didn't sit too well with me, but then, it's not my place to set about trying to change things. Back in the UK, on occasions such as this I'd always hope that a few other guests, especially women and girls, would serve themselves first, so as for me not to appear either greedy or inconsiderate. I'd hang back a while, albeit with some degree of difficulty! Here though I found that all the women stayed glued to their seats while the men set about the food first. It's the age-old custom, the women subservient to their men, who get first pickings. I tried to suggest that the women and girls might like to go to the buffet before me, but they were having none of it. They reacted with disbelief. No! You're a man, you must fill your plate first and then we women will follow. The only exception to this would be if a woman went to the food to fill a plate for her husband either because he can't be bothered to go himself, or perhaps because he is unable due to some physical impairment.

That kind of throwback to a former age takes some adjusting to.

Right then, if you'd like me to sign anything, form an orderly queue... 😝

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Far from Anywhere

Had to go into Rhodes Town on Friday, so we took the opportunity to go for a smoked salmon baguette at the wonderfully quirky Koukos [cuckoo] café. This part of the "new" town in Rhodes is rather nice to wander around, since if you take a side street or two you discover that it still contains some pretty atmospheric old streets (see top photo). It's the old centre of the original "New" Town, going back over a century to times before the new town hotels were ever even thought of, leave alone constructed.

The Koukos is a magnet for Greeks too, since its prices are very competitive and there's an excellent choice of snacks.
But what really prompted this post was the fact that this morning I cycled up to Asklipio to collect our mail. I haven't done it on my bike since last winter, since it's 4km of uphill dirt track all the way. As a consequence it takes me half an hour to get up to the village, but a mere ten minutes to get home again.

On the way up it felt more like July than October 9th. There was no wind at all and the temperature on the lane must have been around the lower thirties, since as I type this now an hour or two later it's 29ºC outside my office window in the shade at home. The smell of the pines in my nostrils as I walked my bike up the steeper parts of the lane reminded me of holidays long past. I used to wish I could bottle that smell and open it to take a whiff during the long cold winters in the UK. It's a smell unique to the maquis countryside of the Mediterranean, particularly where it's peppered with pines, as it is in the hills above our home here on Rhodes. There are olive groves all the way too and often I stop to simply absorb the environment, since gazing around at lots of places on that lane one can see nothing at all that's man-made, apart from the tracks along the lane that is.

There's the ever-present smell of the dry pines and the sight of soaring birds of prey catching the thermals above in the totally cloudless sky. Lowering one's gaze there's the vast expanse too of the blue sea, which consistently reminds me of how small I am. That sea pays no mind to the human wickedness that's made the city of Aleppo a household name, for all the wrong reasons. It isn't bothered by the Trump-Clinton fraças or petty arguments among ex-pats living over here who bicker and worry about "Brexit" or who's not going to which barbecue because someone else they don't like has been invited.

The vastness and beauty of the environment here gives one a big horizon, a big sky as Kate Bush once sang. And I love it. 

I arrived at the Agapitos taverna a pool of sweaty flesh under my t-shirt, owing in part to the rucksack on my back into which I was going to stuff the small packages (herbal stuff regularly ordered from Healthspan) that I was going to collect along with any other mail that may be waiting for me.

When you collect mail from a village bar/taverna as we do, you get used to the fact that you need to assign a little time to the task. When the bills are due, for example, they'll all be stacked in shoeboxes and each resident sits down with a box and thumbs through a couple of hundred envelopes until they find their own. Today there were three bills needing to be collected, the phone bill, the water bill and the electricity bill, thus incurring  at least a quarter of an hour of fingering through envelopes and concentrating on reading each name to be sure that I didn't miss anything addressed to us or our two closest neighbours. 

I asked Athanasia, who spends almost her entire life in the kitchen here, if I could have a portokala'da (a Greek orangeade) to sip while I sifted. You can see it on the windowsill in the 2nd photo below. It was while I sifted that I had one of those moments when you kind of stop and take stock of your lot in life. Go on, admit it, you do know what I mean. While I sorted through envelope after envelope, occasionally whipping one out and throwing it to one side to take back wth me, I became aware that a typical kafeneion morning was going on around me right outside. There must have been thirty or forty village men out there, many of which I knew, at least by sight after eleven years of living here, all seated around tables playing cards or backgammon, all arguing heatedly as they always do about politics or possibly football. Maybe basketball, which the Greeks simple call "basket".

I only had my rather ancient phone with me, which takes pictures of questionable quality at the best of times, but I snapped these couple of photos anyway because what I was witnessing was putting me in ruminative mood. These men (and of course there were no women present) had all known each other from birth, there was Giannis the manager of the Ekaterini Hotel, there was Giorgos from the Gré Café and the bloke who retired a year or two ago from the Gennadi post office, there was Dimitri "the horse" and the local Papas, Giorgo's father as it happens. There was the bloke I remember who drives the local JCB, whose name escapes me and so on it went.

As I finished my drink, slung my rucksack back over my shoulders, said "ta leme" to Athanasia and began to push my bike back up the hill out of the village and toward the lane that would take me the 4km back down the valley to my home, I walked beneath a terrace where a woman stood and called to the group of early-teenage children that were hanging out behind the Agapitos Bar/taverna.

"Giorgia!! Giorgia!!" she called, "Is Pelagia there with you?"
"NO. She isn't!" came the reply.
"Then where is she?" The woman called back.
"I don't know..." one of the other youngster then interrupted, "She's down the hill at Athina's!"
"Thank you!" the woman replied and went inside.

Village life. The group of young people, about five or six of them, all looked very different from the kids in the town. I wouldn't say that they looked dowdy, but they had a kind of wholesomeness about them, their clothes a lot more conservative without being too frumpy. They were occupying themselves with a kitten that one of the boys was carrying. I heard its mewing as they all petted it. I'd had no qualms about leaving my bike out there, safe in the knowledge that they wouldn't dream of touching it.

Life as it's gone on here for centuries. 

And I found myself thinking, "This is why I love living here. This is what adds so much quality to a simple life on a hillside on a Greek island." Here on a mountainside in this village that's "makria apo pouthena" there is a kind of equilibrium that transcends economic crises, American-Russian distrust, Pokemon, the Kardasians ...whatever. There's a rhythm of life that still goes on as it has from time immemorial. And it makes me feel, well, it makes me feel content, it de-stresses me, it reminds me of what life ought to be about.

I'm not being idealistic. The stoicism of these local folk is admirable. There are those in the village that I was cycling away from who are hard-put to pay their bills after all the cuts in pensions and wages, too after the weird holiday season that is now drawing to a close. The community, though, is still intact. OK, so it's rarer than it used to be. The whole world changes; here is no different. But to be able to spend one's days in this environment, as a guest among these open-hearted folk, well, one could do a lot worse.

I suppose what I'm saying is that we all need perspective and we don't get it from charging around chasing the dollar all the time. There's a good deal of perspective to be found in a mountain village on a Greek island that's "makria apo pouthena" - far from anywhere.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Above and Beyond

It's been a pretty regular week since the last post on Wednesday 28th September. Once again I was on Halki on Thursday with a few guests from the UK plus two good friends from Austria. My Austrian friends are a couple the husband of which actually grew up here on Rhodes and went to school in Arhangelos, so he's fluent in Greek. He wanted to show his wife of just three years how beautiful Halki was and so they tagged along with my excursion. She wasn't disappointed. 

Arriving on Halki aboard the Nissos Halki

Since the kindness of many folk on Halki is almost legendary, I kind of expected what happened when they ate lunch with me at Lefkosia's taverna. Of course they were willing to pay and we were in no way wanting Mihalis (Lefkosia's son) to not charge them but, once they were ready to settle up he refused point blank to accept anything for their delicious lunch of moussaka (the best in Greece, of course), Tzatziki, Greek salad and a Fix or two since they were friends of "Gianni" [me folks]. As I said, expected but not in a "taking advantage" kind of way, but rather simply in an "I know Mihali" way. 

Incidentally, I've mentioned to quite a number of guests on the Halki excursion of late about the Tarpon Springs (Florida) connection and so here's the link to a post that shows a photo of the now rather battered marble obelisk commemorating the fact that the road up to the old village was built with money from the Halkiot community over there. The post is from October 2013 and contains a lot of great photos of my walk up to the kastro on the mountain above Halki's picturesque harbour at Nymborio. It's worth noting that I am reliably informed that since I did the climb the path from the old abandoned village up to the kastro has now been improved greatly and is clearly demarcated and laid with gravel.

A few of my UK guests also joined us at taverna Lefkosia and one couple, when I asked them at the end of their meal if everything was OK, replied that not only was it OK, but it was excellent. The gentleman said that the staff (all Lefkosia's family of course) had been attentiveness itself and couldn't do enough to ensure that they had a good lunch. When the'd finished eating he'd asked Kiki or Mihalis if they had any ice cream. The answer was "No, I'm afraid not. But what was it in particular you were wanting?" When he replied with his preference they immediately shot off along the quayside to the café-bar there, where they do delicious locally-made ice creams, and came back with their dessert so that they could enjoy it without having to re-locate, since they were in that "Let's not disturb the current exquisite status quo" moment that so many experience when dining al fresco on a Greek island. My guests were delighted, also with the price of their meal as well as the service, and told me that the staff had gone above and beyond what was necessary to make their Halki lunch just perfect. 

The view from Lefkosia's. Come on, would you want to move?

A definite feel-good moment for me too. When you "care for" a group of guests who are on their holidays during a day out, there's an immense feeling of satisfaction when you get the feedback that tells you that they're going to remember this day as a highlight of a very good vacation. 

On an entirely different subject, the Yucca plants in our garden have gone mad flowering this season. One, quite near to the front of the house, has had no less than four flower heads on it, two of which have gone over, but the other two, well...

I'm not a huge fan of white flowers, but these are just magic. Hope you agree.

And, just to finish off this rambling, I took a couple of shots in Old Rhodes Town today, while on my way to another delicious lunch of gigantes and courgette rissoles (kolokithokeftedes) at the Odyssey taverna...

While I'm thinking about restaurant service above and beyond the call of duty, I should mention also that I had two very beautiful young women (college friends) from Lancashire on the excursion today, who were staying in Kolymbia. They followed my recommendation and found their way to the Odyssey where they ordered pizza. They told me that the hotel food (they'd booked last minute, and it was their first visit to Rhodes) wasn't particularly good, but they enjoyed their Odyssey pizza so much that, since they couldn't eat all of it, they asked Adonis (who, along with the other boys waiting table, was a bit smitten TBH) if they could have a "doggy-bag" to take what they couldn't eat away with them. No problem, Adonis whipped their plates away and soon returned to their table with a foil tray, sealed with its cardboard lid, wrapped in a plastic carrier bag, for the girls to take back and feast upon in their room later tonight.

Doesn't it just give you that tingle factor?

And, the final postscript. Returning to Mihalis at Lefkosia's taverna last Thursday. As my Austrian friends and I rose to leave, Milahis asked me, "What are you taking home with you today Gianni, to share with your wife, stuffed tomatoes and peppers, or perhaps dolmades?"

I travelled back with a foil tray full of Lefkosia's delicious "pseftikes dolmades" - which my better half and I enjoyed that very evening. So often I find that the folk on Halki go "above and beyond" in their caring for little old me, too. So often guests on the excursions ask me, "Do you like living here?"


Wednesday, 28 September 2016

When the Earth Moves

At a couple of minutes before midnight on Tuesday September 27th the earth moved. No, not for the often-cited intimate reason, unless, that is, there was an extraordinary degree of synchronicity going on that particular evening; no, rather because we had an earthquake to the strength of 5.4 on the Richter scale.

Within minutes the most popular social media site was teeming with comments from locals seemingly wanting to beat everyone else to it... 

"Did you feel it? I wash brushing my teeth."
"All the windows rattled as I washed up."
"Didn't feel a thing, I was propping up a bar at the time."
"My dog howled."
"Wow, s**t cared or what? I was reading in bed."
"What was all the fuss about? Did I miss something while I watched CSi..?"

Apparently, if you ever want to know what half of Rhodes is doing at 23.58pm, best arrange for an earthquake because they'll all rush to their phones, tablets and computers to let the world know. 

Can't see what all the fuss was about if I'm honest. The epicentre was a few kilometers north of Halki, not far from Tilos. The local paper says it was of sufficient strength to worry the inhabitants of the local islands.

You can say what you like about all the things that the Greeks don't do properly, the hugely cumbersome bureaocracy here, the holes in the road that are repaired, only to reappear a few weeks later, the way the traffic signs are sometimes mounted on poles at just the right angle to confuse vehicles coming from two directions into not knowing who has priority, there's so much more.

Something, however, that they do get right (well, most of the time) is that their buildings are built to earthquake-resistant standards that actually work. Concrete skeleton houses may not be the prettiest buildings on the planet, but they stay where they are, with perhaps just the odd piece of masonry working lose, when a fairly robust shaking of the earth occurs.

You may argue that a falling chunk of masonry, should it strike you on the head, could well ruin your whole day, but it's a lot better than the whole building falling in from above you. The fact is, we get tremors here on such a regular basis that one tends to take them for granted. By far the majority of them last a millisecond and they give one the impression that an aircraft has just gone through the sound barrier a few miles above. I can use that comparison because I'm old enough to remember when that rather elegant aircraft Concorde was being put through her paces before going into public service. There was a time when a sonic boom could be heard above South West England quite regularly, causing many of us to stare up at the skies in wonder, searching for that sleek delta-shaped arrow as she glinted in the sun while darting across the skies above us, no doubt with Brian Trubshaw at the helm.

Earthquakes of much lower ratings on the Richter scale than we get here have caused huge destruction and loss of life in other parts of the world, usually because of substandard building methods, or simply because the buildings that collapsed were very old.

Interestingly, I found out only recently that the Knights who built the Old Town of Rhodes, even back in the 14th to 16th centuries, incorporated earthquake protection into the design of the houses and streets. They knew what they were doing, because after 500 years and counting the Old Town is largely intact to prove it. How did they do it? Take a look...

Have you, like me, ever wandered the old town musing over those small arches that are ubiquitous in the tiny streets? They're much too small to walk across and anyway, they aren't positioned anywhere near any upstairs windows. I remember asking someone once how the Old Town had managed to survive five hundred years of tremors and quakes and the answer came back, "Those arches are there to shore up the buildings in just such an event. It's one of the advantages of the streets having been constructed to be so narrow, it enables the buildings to support each other when the earth moves."

Makes sense to me and it seems to be born out by the way the place has lasted. 

The largest quake we've had in the eleven years that we've been living here was at 6.26am on 15th July 2008 (Wiki link). It measured 6.4 and lasted for about twenty seconds, which I can assure you is a very long time when the ground beneath you is shaking. My wife and I actually got up from our bed, threw on dressing gowns and walked out of our bedroom, into our lounge and out the front door on to the drive before it stopped.

Quakes of much smaller magnitude have been responsible for huge loss of life in other areas. So, this and our more recent one were chicken feed in reality. People back in the UK do sometimes ask us about the "dangers" of living with tremors and quakes. I often reply that they're much more preferable that grey skies and freezing cold winters!

Today we got to spend a few hours on our local beach, recuperating of course...

And before you ask, no that's not us!!! I just liked the composition this presented.
Then, this evening we decided to recover from the trauma of last night with a much-needed cocktail in the evening sunshine...

Like the table? Amazing what you can do with an old cable drum.
If you think I'm going to discuss whether the earth may move again tonight, you've got another think coming.

Sunday, 25 September 2016


We were sitting at a table outside the bakery in Kalathos, happily enjoying a frappé together, our loaf of fresh village bread, still warm, sitting on the table between us, when I watched four young tourists, probably Scandinavian, possibly German, get up from their table and walk out to their parked hire car, a little white Nissan Micra. Parked four or five feet behind it along the kerbside was another car. Same model, same make. You see a lot of white Nissan Micras around during the season, usually with colourful hire company decals on the drivers' and passenger doors. The second Micra was in the charge of a more mature British couple, who were sitting at a table in the souvlaki joint next-door, which also does morning coffees. The British couple were sipping at their cappuccinos, also relaxing while they took their short break before continuing on their sightseeing adventure no doubt.

The car in front of the one that the two young couples were now climbing into was ours. Our car belongs to us, it matters to us that we keep it in good condition. If we have a "prang" as we used to call it when I was a young motor racing freak, it'll be for us to sort out with the insurance company and that's not as straightforward here as it is in the UK.

Now, someone will correct me if I'm wrong, but from the experience of a few other UK ex-pats that we've known over the years, we've learned that although one has to have car insurance here in Greece, even if one has fully comprehensive cover with all the frills, it's much rarer than in the UK for the insurance company to provide a hire car while yours is being repaired. It's also more likely that the insurance company will expect you to fork out for the repairs, which could amount to a painful four-figure sum, before they'll deign to reimburse you a few months (if you're lucky) down the line. Ouch indeed.

So, as I sipped at my straw I watched the young tourists climb into their Micra and promptly reverse it straight into the car behind, with a very audible crump! 

The car behind actually jerked back a few inches from the impact and the more mature couple leaped from their seats in alarm and strode out to the kerbside to confront those to blame and inspect the damage. Since our car was only a few feet in front of the offending vehicle and there was yet room in front of that, I also leapt from my seat, strode out to my car and pulled forward a few feet to be sure that once the two parties in the collision had sorted out what they were going to do, the driver wouldn't slam his foot on the accelerator and prang my car up the rear end before they sped off.

See, the thing is, the summer season is smash time folks. It's crash, bang, wallop and collide time. This little incident thankfully didn't amount to anything since by some stroke of luck neither car had sustained any damage of note, nothing that the hirers would be wanting to point out when they dropped the keys back on the hire company's desk anyway. So, after some consternation, then some tugging of the forelock in deepest humble apology, the young foursome drove off, without hitting our car (phew), although not without stalling the engine once whilst half out into the carriageway, and the older couple returned to their cappuccinos. This was one of the lucky ones. There haven't been many of those.

Since the season began I personally have seen cars upside down, wrapped around trees, lamp-posts and electricity poles, wrapped around other cars or buses and trucks and sitting beside the road with just about every panel smashed in. I've also read reports almost daily in the two main Rhodean newspapers (well, on their Facebook pages to be precise, with photos though) of people being killed on motorcycles, mopeds, and especially those lethal quad-bikes that have no business on proper roads anyway. Sorry if you're the type that hires these highly dangerous contraptions, but it's true. They're designed for off-road use and are often to be seen in a well-pulverised state along the roadside, their "riders" having been rushed to hospital with half their skin missing along their arms or legs. Their centre of gravity is much too high and the riders often try and take corners too fast and they simply flip over on to their side. It only takes a momentary lapse in concentration too for this to happen. RIP Rik Mayall (read it all folks!).

Plus they only chug along at about 40mph, thus causing immense frustration to the vehicles behind them, especially Rhodean residents who aren't out for a pleasant holiday drive but actually have somewhere to go in a specific period of time. With my work I travel on coaches every week during the season and I have every sympathy with the coach drivers on this one. To find enough space between oncoming traffic to pass one of these things is a major logistic problem when your vehicle is 40 feet long. Frustration builds!

This year for some reason there has been a crash-fest, sadly. There have been numerous holidaymakers from various countries shocked, maimed, concussed, or killed on the roads of Rhodes. Of course, the larger islands like this one do have substantial road systems, thus enticing those coming here on vacation to hire a vehicle and get out exploring. Nothing wrong with that, but it seems that for some odd reason many such folk leave their sensible brain behind at home. They often fail to use their mirrors at all and make last minute manoeuvres without signalling, thus causing other vehicles to collide with them. Perhaps surprisingly too, many ex-pats living here seem to think that because we're on an island it's fine to drink a skinful then drive home. Several ex-pats here have wrapped their cars around trees and barely survived in such circumstances. I can only say I'm glad they didn't wrap themselves around some poor innocent pedestrian or their car in the process.

One element too, although it only accounts for a very small percentage of the carnage, is the number of ancient old Greeks in their nineties who refuse to give up driving. One I've talked about on this blog before now, who lives in Asklipio, still drives a pickup using any part of the road he feels he wants to, even after his fifty-something year-old son has hidden the keys, threatened his old dad and even tried to block the pickup in so it can't be extracted from where it's parked. Yet sooner or later there he is, head barely higher than the steering wheel, trundling down the lane with all and sundry fleeing for the kerbs and banks in a desperate bid to avoid a collision, with often only limited success.

The majority of serious accidents though involve tourists. Often a wreck can be seen beside the road, having been left there (I almost believe intentionally) for a week or two before being towed or lifted away, in order to alert other drivers to the dangers.

One of the problems is that holidaymakers seem to think that since we have no rain for months on end then the roads will not be slippery. Bad mistake to make. Firstly, the sun converts the tarmac into a skid pan all too often and secondly, rubber dust builds up, especially on the corners, and there is your instant cause for caution, often sadly unheeded. Also, at this time of the year when we may get the first cloudburst of the autumn, rain on rubber dust equally makes for a very slippery road surface. There are so many pieces of car bumper and shards of shattered glass on some corners that you'd think it might just wake up some of the folk driving around these unfamiliar roads in hired vehicles, but it only takes one...

Then again you'll see these couples wobbling along, snakelike on a scooter. I could be quite wrong, but I get the distinct impression that many who never ride scooters or motorbikes in their own country hire them when on a Greek island. I wonder how many of such people either know that their travel insurance small print tells them that they're not covered if they do so, or indeed that they are many times more likely to have an accident out here than they would be in the UK. Riding a two-wheeled machine is dangerous. I know, I have my motorcycle license and have owned some quite big machines in times past. You can be the safest rider out there and still not be seen by distracted drivers of vehicles with a few more wheels.

It's not an exaggeration to say that almost daily this summer we've seen reports of, or seen first hand, some pretty awful accidents. It's such an unnecessary way of spoiling one's holiday, even of not surviving it at all, as has been the case for quite a few this year.

Be safe folks, be extra vigilant when you're driving abroad. Have a smashing time if you're over here for a holiday, but not for the wrong reason!

Monday, 19 September 2016


There's a taverna I know that does OK during the tourist season. It's right on the harbour front on a small Greek island and when I passed by the other day it was closed. Normally it's never closed while the season's still in full swing, which of course it is at the moment, since it's mid-September and businesses like that ought to be making their money while they can, since during the winter there will be no income for almost six months.

Since the Greek financial crisis finally came to light about six years ago now, the government, governments in fact, have been trying various ways of making businesses declare their correct income in order not to evade the taxes that the country badly needs paid in order to help it turn a corner and start progressing toward solvency (now then, don't laugh!). 

For decades leading up to the crisis really hitting home regular visitors to Greece will know how so often you'd spend an evening in a traditional taverna and, when it came time to pay your bill, the owner would scribble the list of what you'd had from memory on the paper table cloth, then round it down to the nearest Drachma and - more recently - Euro. He'd say, "Call it twenty five Euro," You'd probably give him thirty and wander off happily, marvelling at how laid back such things are in wonderful, quirky, beguiling Greece.

Of course, back then very few of us would have given a thought to the fact that such methods of payment and income were an ideal way for businesses to fabricate the amount they told the government that they were earning. To us visitors it was one of the things that we loved about Greece. How laid back everything was, how quaint.

It's now legendary the ways in which various professional people have been avoiding paying taxes. How many surgeons, for example, since the government has been investigating their finances, were found to be declaring an income of around €10,000 per annum, while a €30,000 Mercedes was sitting on their drive? How many homes in the affluent districts of Athens had special covers laid over their swimming pools to make them look like enormous paved patios from the air? Drones have proved exceedingly useful in exposing such crafty ways of trying to get out of paying for licences.

It's now law that every retail establishment in the country has to display the sign (I mentioned this recently in another post, click here to read it) that informs the customer of the fact that, if they aren't given a printed receipt then they are not obliged to pay for the goods or services involved. We have a favourite bar (no names, no pack drill) which isn't all that far away from where we live, that never places your receipt, your "tab", on the table when they bring your drinks or snacks. In fact, the other evening while enjoying a pleasant drink there with two close friends from the UK, I reminded one of the family that runs the place that we were ready to pay and yet hadn't been given our apodeixi

"Haven't you? Sorry, no problem," He replied and disappeared behind the counter inside the building. 

"Aha!" We thought, "now he'll bring it." He didn't. Instead he trotted over to our table, told us the amount and waited while we fumbled in our purses for the cash. 

It's easy to be self righteous when reading about such scenarios; to say to us: "Well, you should have insisted!" Yes, it's easy, but when you're talking about one of your favourite bars on the island, run by a family you've known for many years, you do - however wrong it may perhaps be - but you do tend to reason that it's their lookout if they choose to do things wrongly. Why should we as members of the public be made to become policemen or women and force the staff to apply the letter of the law? Especially is this so when you'd be pretty sure that it would cook your goose for ever patronising the place again. 

Frankly it amazes me that there are cafés and bars, tavernas too, that still aren't obeying the law to provide an apodeixi (till receipt, lit: "proof"). I say this because it's common knowledge that the excise people are paying random visits to such businesses under cover and keeping a watchful eye for tax evasion techniques. They detect such practices going on? They close the place down - immediately. The owners then face stiff penalties and rightly so.

The taverna I refer to at the top of this piece is a case in point. While sipping an Elliniko further along the harbour yesterday my host told me what had happened. The tax inspectors had taken a table and observed what was going on. They even gave the proprietor the benefit of the doubt a couple of times, but after they'd witnesses five different groups at table paying for their meals and not being given their till receipt, the Inspectors revealed their true identity and closed the place on the spot.

Maybe the establishment in question thought that because they are situated on a small island that's difficult to get to they'd be OK, they'd be able to get away with it, but it seems not.

Another crafty scheme that has recently been reported on national TV is on first glance ingenious. The waiter does indeed place your receipt on the table when your drinks are delivered and, when you pay, you waltz off thinking that you've just patronised an establishment that's keeping to the law and paying the VAT. Ah, but, what the staff then do is void the transaction on the electronic register and then trash the receipt. Hey presto, no sale recorded. 

While sitting talking to Mihalis, who, along with his mum and siblings, runs Lefkosia's taverna on Halki the other day, I asked about the recently installed desalination plant. Where was it situated and how much did it cost? Was it partly financed by money sent back from the Halkiot community in Tarpon Springs, Florida? He told me that it cost a seven figure sum, but that in five or six years it would have paid for itself. In times past when they'd had to have their water supply brought in by boat from Rhodes, Mihalis told me that every load used to cost the island €4,000. And in the high season that would be three times a week. €12,000 per week for drinking water, brackish drinking water at that. Since they commissioned the new plant in 2014 they haven't looked back. The pressure in the taps in Halki is excellent and the water 100% potable, drinkable.

They've situated the plant in a small bay well out of sight of the village, so as not to mar the beauty of the place for the thousands of tourists and holidaymakers that visit each year. The local council on Halki is forward thinking, since the larger communities on Kastellorizo and Symi have yet to follow suit and still have their water brought over from Rhodes (Kalathos Bay, in fact) by tanker. Apparently too, the islanders had a stash of cash from the Tarpon Springs community set aside from some years ago, so that was used to supplement the amount paid for the new plant. 

In case you're wondering, the electricity supply on Halki is brought to the island by underwater cable from Rhodes. Symi, of course, does have its own modest power station, which if I remember correctly is diesel powered.

When the local council on Symi have to place an order with the water company on Rhodes to bring the tanker over, I'm assuming that they insist on a receipt.