Monday, 21 November 2011

Two Mornings, One Tragic, the Other Exhilarating

Well, it's over a week again now since we had any rain. The weekend before last we enjoyed a storm which lasted three days from the arrival of the first clouds to re-emerging sun, but that ended last Monday (the 14th) and it's been fine ever since.

Tragically a man drowned here in Kiotari early last Tuesday morning. Y-Maria and I were preparing to go for a long walk at around 9.30am and we saw a helicopter making circuits above the sea down below us. Although the day had dawned bright and mainly blue, the sea was still calming down after the storm and the waves at dawn had been around 12 feet high. At first I though that the helicopter may have been military, since we often see military aircraft flying along the coast on their way to take part in army exercises down near Prassonissi, but it became clear on putting the bins to my eyes that it was of the air-sea rescue kind and that it was occupied with something very near home.

Arriving at the beach at around 10.00am we encountered a knot of people, just south of the Paralia Taverna, where the road is only separated from the beach by a few low shrub-covered dunes, all wringing their hands and staring anxiously out to sea, where the aircraft still hovered about a half a mile out from the shore. Also present was a Police car, one of its occupants talking into his in-car communicator. A couple of the observers were neighbours whom we knew and they soon updated us on the sad scenario which had unfolded just a couple of hours earlier.

Apparently a couple of men from Germany were staying with a friend in his house on the beach road. They were apparently here to pick olives for a while. Reportedly they'd decided that each morning they'd go for a swim, notwithstanding the fact that one them wasn't a confident swimmer. The beach here shelves steeply into the water and there are frequent rocks not far below the surface just a little way out. Of course, when the sea is like a millpond, or "san la'thi [like oil]" as the Greeks say, one can see the rocks quite clearly through the crystal water. When, however, the sea boils as it was doing on this particular morning, there is the added danger of undertow, as well as those rocks which cannot be seen until it's too late. Sadly, both swimmers got into difficulty, one of them just making it back to shore, where he ran to the house to raise the alarm. This was at some time before 8.00am. When we arrived at around ten the helicopter had just located his companion, floating about half a mile from the shore and quite evidently now, sadly, lifeless. The aircraft was awaiting the arrival of a launch which was coming to retrieve the body, it having been delayed by the fact that launching it was difficult from Lardos "Limani" with the sea being so high.

I was reminded of a comment made to me by a seasoned Greek seaman once. "Gianni," he said, "Never lose your respect for the sea. It's a treacherous friend and it will always be master."

Happily, yesterday was an altogether different experience. We took a drive on a bright, blue morning up to the remote hilltop village of Messanagros. The light was impossibly vivid and the temperature in Kiotari approaching 20ºC when we left. Up at Messanagros, where the wind always blows, it felt fresh and was more likely around 15º, when not sheltered by the buildings. As we walked the village the temperature climbed steadily and it began to feel quite pleasantly warm. Passing one rusty old gate, which led into a small concrete yard, fronting a small cottage, the door of which was one of those that's permanently open, since on the side of the house that faces the yard there is no other light source for the interior room, we bade kalimer'a to a middle aged woman dressed in dark clothes that she'd evidently worn daily for some considerable time. She returned the greeting and so began a short conversation. She bade us come in and we then met her mother, a tiny old stick of a woman who was dressed entirely in black, including the headscarf which framed her oval, leathery face. She smiled but allowed the younger woman, who, upon asking we discovered was her daughter, to continue the conversation.

"Where do you live? Do you own your house or do you rent? What work do you do? Do you have children? How long have you been married?" She fired such questions in quick succession. 

One gets used to the fact that such questions are not considered intrusive in Greek culture, you are expected to answer them succinctly, otherwise you may give offense. Upon being told that my wife's mother had been Greek, our host immediately dug her evidently soily hand into a glass bowl on her old wooden table and thrust a clutch of wrapped boiled sweets into each of our palms.

The room in which we stood was basic - to be kind about it. As is so often true of older village houses, the floor was bare concrete, the walls various shades of grubbiness from years of not having seen a roller and there was an ancient "so'ba" [log-burning stove] in one corner, stack of logs to one side. An old sink hung precariously from another wall and something which once resembled lace hung across the small window at the far end of the room, trying to masquerade as curtains. Such people can only be described as paupers, yet they are always generous with what little they have. It appeared that the older woman, the mother, was a widow and the younger (who must have been fifty if a day) spoke in such terms as to leave us in no doubt that she was sure she'd some day be snapped up by some lucky chap and would then produce an heir for her dear old mum.
"I'm still young" she declared, when we asked her if she was married or had children.

The photos were taken with my mobile, so the definition's not so great I'm afraid. We made our excuses and prepared to bid our hosts goodbye, stepping into the bright sunshine of the yard. The younger woman sped ahead of us across ten feet or so of once white-painted concrete to the huge pink rose bush growing beside the old gate and plucked two roses, along with twelve inches or so of stem, one for each of us. She pressed them into our hands and gave us a huge smile as we left, adding that we must drop in again next time we were passing.

We carried on walking around the village, passing the tiny cafenio, of which the village has only the one, out from which exuded the voices of the few local men as they got excited over their Ellenikos and backgammon games or tried to get their fellow villagers to see that their synopsis of the current crisis and how to solve it was surely the right one.

Out front of the cafe as we passed was a clutch of maybe ten or fifteen cats, all watching intently as the local fish-seller was plying his trade from those white polystyrene, ice-filled containers on the back of his pickup. A couple of villagers bade us Kalimer'a as we passed.

This is still how they make the bread and roast the joint for Sunday lunch. 
And the one below shows how well along the vegetable gardens are in this village, its altitude working in favour of the locals planting up maybe a month ahead of the likes of us who live much further down and hence suffer the summer heat and drought for a few weeks more than they do up here.

Finally, the one below shows where you'd have to go to "spend a penny" (or perhaps more) on a dark and windy night in the wilds of Messanagros. Maybe a "po" under the bed wouldn't go amiss if you lived here, eh?

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

State of the Nation

I've recently had a very interesting e-mail from one of my readers who's been a Rhodo-phile for many years. With his permission, I've reproduced some his comments in this post, together with my response and a further response from him.

I think I've learned something from his comments about just what effect the social unrest and strikes which we in Greece have experienced this past couple of seasons is having - and is yet still likely to have - on the potential British tourist and his plans for future holidays. In response to the item "Go Greek For a Week" on my "News & Stuff" page my correspondent wrote in the first instance the following comments:


I've just seen your news item re the C4 programme, …we ...totally agree with your synopsis - the only problem is my mother in law was staying over for the night and, after watching it with us, is now convinced that all Greeks are tax avoiding crooks that need locking up and is struggling to see why we would ever want to visit the country again!!

Tax avoidance seems to be an integral part of greek culture and something we have been amused at over the years and we now have mixed feelings regarding the state the country is in and the effect that it will have on the people that have grown up treating such avoidance as an integral part of earning a semi decent crust.  On the one hand we agree with my mother in law's new found stance but on the other have first hand experience of such avoidance being part of everyday life and typical of the scant regard many (most?) Greeks seem to have for the law, e.g. driving, parking, wearing helmets, etc.., all of which now seem to be being clamped down on by the relevant authorities.  Sadly its now starting to affect our pension pots and mortgage endowments and, as such, is making us see things a bit differently!

As an example of tax avoidance..., the proprietor of one of the bars we regularly use in Rhodes Town now makes a point of ensuring we have a receipt in the glass even if its for our first drink and, invariably, on him and, more often than not, remains the only receipt in the glass no matter how long we stay - at the end of the session he always produces a figure that seems roughly commensurate with what we have consumed and we go away happy.  Turn the clock back 20+ years and the same proprietor would not have presented us with any receipts and we remember one session in October during the late 80s when we literally got rained into his establishment and when we eventually decided it was time to leave he simply looked at his watch and came up with a ridiculously low figure, apparently, based on an approximation of the time we had been in his bar (older and wiser we now know that what we had drunk would have been written down on his pad behind the bar but it still makes a good story!).

I really hope things come to some sort of amicable conclusion soon but as it stands we will be holding off a for a while before we book our annual pilgrimage for next year.

In response, I sent a message which included the following observations:

Firstly, yes, the centuries-old culture of tax avoidance is something which I myself used to unwittingly "appreciate", in that I often lament the days when you could spend an evening in a taverna, and when you asked for the bill, the owner would pull up a chair, get out a pencil or pen and scribble the basics of what you'd had on the paper tablecloth, round it down and ask you for a ridiculously modest sum. Of course, now that this country is paying big-time for such shoddy work practices we realize that what we were viewing as a quaint "essentially Greek" custom was simply tax evasion, however much we thought it reflected the "charm" of this country. It's hard to come to this conclusion, because I still miss that way of doing things purely from a holidaymaker's perspective!

Secondly, whilst I fully understand your words about having doubts regarding coming here next year; this reticence, if translated into actual numbers, would be even more disastrous for the Greek economy and millions of humble Greeks who literally barely enter the tax bracket at all (even when they're being honest!) and work in the tourist industry. The fact is that islands like Rhodes rely almost entirely on tourism and all this negative publicity has the potential to seriously cause major deprivation and joblessness if people stop coming. For all their wily ways, the grass roots Greeks are humble hard-working people and they feel rightly aggrieved that they are all paying (lower tax thresholds, higher VAT rates, petrol prices etc.) for the extravagance of the professionals, the surgeons, the lawyers, the entertainers, yes ...the politicians, who have evaded paying huge tax bills and are still sitting pretty while the poorer people see their wages reduced while the prices for just about everything are hiked.

So, I will always plead with the British - and in fact anyone - to please still come here for a holiday. The landscape, the light, the history, the sunniness of the local people, the food, the things that mark this country as truly unique, are all still here - albeit at a higher prices than in times past.

He then sent another message, containing these comments [bold type mine]:

The Greek economy and rising costs is a worry for us but its the prospect of strikes this is causing that is having the biggest impact on us - we were seriously considering a trip to Rhodes during the October half term a few weeks ago but the prospect of air traffic, taxi, etc. strikes, meant it was simply not worth the risk of losing a couple of days of our hard earned week dealing with airport delays and/or struggling to get about.  Instead we chose to stay in the UK and visit Centre Parcs ...and had a very enjoyable time with zero hassle, albeit at about the same cost as a trip to Rhodes would have been!

Its been quite some time since we have been to Rhodes as a cheap destination, ...but we keep returning simply because we love just about everything about the place and I expect we will continue to do so.  To be perfectly honest I do not think our main holiday to Rhodes next year is in jeopardy ...but we will definitely be holding off and booking up much later to give us time to assess the situation and potential for disruptive strikes, etc..

The bad press that Greece is getting at the moment will undoubtedly be having a similar effect on other travellers as well.  Those, like myself, who know and love Greece and the Greeks may be thinking twice about if or when to visit next year but will undoubtedly return before too long. Unfortunately there will be loads of others that have either never visited before or don't care where they go, so long as there is sun..., that will be lost for somewhat longer.

We'll keep selling Rhodes' virtues but will be adding caveats whilst the current situation persists.

I felt that his comments were of such relevance that I ought to share them with my readers on the blog. I also now better understand why some who may truly want to come here are having second thoughts. After all, a really good holiday can be ruined by long delays at airports, a non-existent taxi service, closed archeological sites and the like. Plus I feel he's spot on when he refers to travellers who may have come here, but will now go elsewhere rather than encounter the hassle that all the disruption can cause them.

Each time we watch the TV news here we express dismay when seeing the strikes and realizing that the only effect they're really having is to dissuade the tourists from coming here, which is precisely the effect the Greeks really don't need!

Anyway, as my dear Dad used to so often say, "you pays yer money and you takes yer choice." Never a truer word spoken…

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Dear Deer

The weather of late has been exceptionally dry, as made reference to the other day in the post "Funny What You Come Across...". In fact, the dust on the surface of the lane leading up to the house is finer than self-raising flour, which is more akin to high summer than the start of the second week in November. It's perhaps for this reason that we've witnessed two really feel-good "nature moments" this past couple of days. 

The lack of rain has lent a much greater than normal importance to our plant pot tray, the one we keep filled with water just beside the car port, primarily for the toads to sit in during the night hours. The first photo below, which isn't all that good quality-wise since it was taken through the double-glazing, shows one of the local Jays drinking from our "pond". This bird is exceptionally shy, but is prepared to come this close to the house because it's thirsty, as are the sparrows and Sardinian Warblers which also pay regular visits to our "watering hole". 

There is simply no water out there in the natural environment anywhere. The forecast suggests that this weekend we may get some rain at last and we really hope it's right. Having just watched the news, which told us that the South of France has received seven inches of rain in 36 hours, twice the amount which they normally receive in the entire month of November, we're feeling decidedly deprived. No, we wouldn't like a huge typhoon, but a heavy storm or two wouldn't go amiss now.

Perhaps, and I don't really know - I'm only guessing, the drought is also the reason for our second sighting of deer within metres of our perimeter fence during a calendar year - just. The last time was during December 2010 when a single doe approached the house from behind (Those last two links will take you to the post about her). But at 8.30am this morning (Thursday November 10th) I went out to throw some vegetable peelings on to our compost heap when, turning to look up the hill as I returned to the house I saw two creatures gazing at me from a few metres up the rise towards our neighbours' house. As usual I at first put them down as goats, since they're always around. But for some reason I gave them a second glance and, sure enough it was a pair of deer, probably a doe and her fawn, who was approaching adulthood, but still a little smaller than the one I took to be her mother.

I dashed into the house for the camera, hoping that they wouldn't be disturbed and take flight. As the photos below show, they stayed right where they were and afforded me the opportunity to snap four shots before they ambled off over the rise. Since they approached to within a few metres of our nearest neighbours' perimeter wall and fence, I wondered if they were associating the houses with a potential water source. Who knows, I'm no expert, but I know a tingle factor moment when I experience one.


Click on any of the images for a larger view.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Funny What You Come Across Sometimes...

 Thursday November 3rd. It's 9.15am and I'm enjoying a lone frappe at the "On the Road" bar in Kalathos. My wife is otherwise occupied for the morning and I shall be walking from here to Lindos to meet her later on. Nicolas, who runs the bar, is a nice, slow-paced gentle kind of guy and he's the brother of my friend Mihalis, who offers me agricultural advice at every opportunity, and who crops up quite often in the books. Notably in Tzatziki For You to Say, Chapter 4, "Hares and Hosepipes". Nicolas has a seriously huge number of olive trees and last year sold us some of his oil, since we didn't get to work harvesting olives ourselves. Buying from a friend of a friend (or in this case, the brother of a friend) is seriously cheaper than buying any other way, including from the mill. I ask if he'd be willing to sell us some more oil this year. 

"How much will you want?  Will you want 'new'?" The new oil is not considered quite as good as oil that's been kept a while. But we don't mind. I reply: "Yes, new would be fine. We'd want about 30 kilo."
"No problem," he replies. "But if this drought continues, there will be no olives!" He's right about that. So far this autumn, there has been a tiny amount of rain compared to the average. In fact in many olive groves the leaves are curling on the trees and the fruit isn't swelling or ripening. We ought to have had several good storms by now, but we've only had one to speak of and it wasn't a very big one at that. He walks off tutting to carry on with his chores and I leave him some cash for the coffee and rise to begin my walk.

There now follows a series of photographs taken on the walk.

Looks like the taxi is being refuelled. This is on the road down to Vlicha from the road to Lindos from Kalathos.
The two main beaches at Lindos are stunning when the sunbeds have all gone. Also, as you can see, the light on days like these is wonderful.
Ditto about the light. Doesn't Lindos look simply scrumptious?

The beach at the far end of St. Paul's Bay. Impossibly inviting now the sun beds are all packed away. As it happened, I'd popped a towel in my shoulder bag. So I whipped off me togs and went for a wonderful solo swim. Out in the bay there was one small fishing boat. On the beach at the far end, under the shadow of the Acropolis, there was a clutch of people at the water's edge, some taking a dip. But here, there was just one woman at the other end of the beach reading a book while she warmed her back in the morning sunlight. She didn't turn around even once while I was there. I could have skinny-dipped. Must admit it was tempting.

A lot of people who I talk to during the season express concern about the welfare of the donkeys which carry the weary tourists to and from the Acropolis and down to Pallas Beach and back. I usually reply that these animals love their owners and know their home. They won't do what they don't want to do, so if they decided that they didn't want to trot up through that village, they would stand still and would be very difficult to budge. Plus they spend 6 months every year grazing, many of them in green pastures further away. It's fair to say that they don't have bad lives, honestly. They are often sent home from work during the season without anyone to tend them, they'll just trot quite safely and happily, two or three at a time, back to their paddock on the periphery of the village. In fact, they can frequently be seen trotting off to work in this way too. Plus, they don't work incessantly during the season either, they do manageable shifts.

This next three were taken with my phone, hence the inferior image quality...

It seems you need to be really sick to rent these rooms.
Honestly, trying to find a parking space for the flash, Italian motor is a nightmare in this village. You'll have noticed it's a cabriolet too.

If I were only a little taller, I could reach the door handle and get in.
So, anyway girls, I can't stand around here all day talking. Must get on with my chores. See you when you're next round. (This one's once again taken with the camera)

(All the photos will open in a larger view of you click on them)

Paved With Gold

I love this time of year. In the UK the month in which I came into this world was always so grey, wet and often bone-chillingly cold that I seem to always conjure up a mental picture of leaden skies and murders of crows circling and cawing over trees with few leaves remaining after the Autumn fall; of weeks passing with scarcely a glimpse of the sun and very little chance of going about my daily grind under a blue sky. No doubt it's the month when the light-boxes required by those with S.A.D. syndrome sell like hot tiropittas.

Here, it's one of the months that really reminds me of the huge climatic difference between the South-Eastern Aegean and the British isles. In November on Rhodes it can rain and it can rain really hard, face-hurtingly hard if you happen to be out in it. But it doesn't stay around for long. In November the sunny days, which usually number around 20 anyway, are just perfect for the outdoor life, whereas during the high summer it's just so tiringly, sweat-inducingly hot that all one wants to do if one doesn't have to work is sit in the house with the shutters closed and drink copious quantities of Adam's ale (that's water if you're not from the UK!).

The daytime temperatures for the past ten days or so have been in the mid twenties. That means that you can actually sit out on the terrace, or in a cafe, and not worry too much about being in the sun for a while. Not for too long mind you, because then you will begin to burn and regret it when you apply the after-sun cream while contemplating your rosy face and arms in the bathroom mirror during the succeeding evening. But it's so lovely during November to go for a twenty minute walk or so first thing in the morning, perhaps down to the beach, where you can take a dip in the still pleasantly warm blue sea. The sea temperature is comfortable for swimming right up until Christmas here. In fact, as regular readers of these ramblings will know from older posts, my wife and I have now swum at least once in every month of the year. In fact my friend Petros (Ch. 10 of Tzatziki For You to Say), who lives in Kalathos, swims every day of the year without fail. When I've ventured into the ocean during January or February and later explained to him that I almost froze solid and certain bits of me almost shrank to the point of verging on the invisible during the first 30 seconds of my immersion, his reply was that I ought to go swimming every day, then I wouldn't even notice the change in the water's temperature during the winter months. I believe he has a good point, but I probably won't embark on the experiment to see if I agree. It's too much like hard work.

So anyway, since it's November, and every day the light is wonderful and the sky a deeper blue than we often see during August, we're tempted outside more often. We've done some serious gardening during the past week or so, giving the secateurs a good hammering, I can tell you. We've also been rash enough to go out for a few walks, dropping in a some neighbours to cadge a drink or a bikkie, or the local Cafe, the "Gre Cafe", just fifteen minutes from the house on foot and fast becoming a pleasurable "heart" to the otherwise fairly deserted Kiotari during the off season. The two Georges and their wives, sister or mother are usually in attendance and we share thoughts on how the summer went for everyone, plus the inevitable comments on the latest bad news on the TV about what's happening in the big world of European finance and politics. usually hearing the comment to the effect that the politicians continue to live it up in luxury whilst the populace slowly sink into destitution. Plus ça change, eh?

So, a couple of days ago there we were, enjoying a frappe in the shade out front of the cafe, while various locals in cars screeched to a halt in their quest to get somewhere, but not to get there before having dashed into the cafe for a take-away frappe, when a smart couple sat down at the table next to us. Not wishing to be nosey, well, anyway… we overheard them talking and became inquisitive enough to greet them with a "Beautiful day, isn't it." The fella took a call on his mobile and we heard him talking in American English, but when speaking to his companion, a nice lady called Suzanna, whom we later learned was from Germany and has now lived in Lardos for about 18 months, he spoke in Greek. It was quite difficult to work him out, so hence the need to become acquainted, eh?

It's easy to draw the wrong conclusions about people. First impressions had us thinking that they were probably some annoyingly well-off people with roots (well, him anyway) here in Rhodes, but now living in the States or perhaps on some cabin cruiser with smoked-glass windows. probably a Merc parked round the back of the cafe or some such motor. Just back here to visit the poor unfortunate relatives.

Wrong. Turned out that they were just friends meeting for a coffee and that he was from Asklipio and had lived in the States for a short while, hence the accent when he spoke his very good English. Inevitably the conversation came around to the economic woes of the country and we heard the man's [I'll leave out his name] opinion about a number of issues. I may not have agreed with all his views, but I have to say that I could see where he was coming from and could sympathize. He was probably somewhere around fifty years old, tall, fairly good looking and in good physical shape. He told us that he was struggling to make ends meet and couldn't get a job for love nor money, as we say. I asked him what kind of job he was looking for; you know, did he have any skills and such. He replied that he would be happy with some bar work or in a hotel or something. It seems that for him the problem is that employers don't want a guy his age, with the salary which would be commensurate with that, when they can get some immigrant 20-something Polish girl for half the amount. So what if she can't make a very good frappe, she's cheap.

His anger led him to express the view that many of the immigrant workers from places such as Albania, Romania, Bulgaria and the like often don't have papers, hence are here illegally and are taking jobs from the locals. The fact that he was talking to a couple of Brits who also work here didn't stop him making his point of view quite clear. Mind you, at least we are legal. But his hurt was apparent and I felt for him, even though I know many immigrant workers personally, many Albanian, who are here legally, are very industrious and willing to do jobs which many Greeks still are not willing to take on. The situation is never that cut and dried is it.

I mentioned the fact that Rhodes as an island has had a series of bumper years tourist-wise, yet the local councils still couldn't afford to put diesel in their vehicles or pay their employees on time. His reply was unequivocal:

"They bleed us dry. It all goes to Athens. Rhodes would be better off independent, like Cyprus."

"You think so?" I asked. "Mind you, it does make some kind of sense. Do you really think that Rhodes would be that much better off running its own finances then?"

"Of course," he replied, "The streets here would be paved with gold. But the Government's bleeding us dry and we get precious little in exchange."

Now this was his opinion, but as I mentioned earlier, I could see why he feels the way he does. When he got up to leave, along with his friend Suzanna, who was very sweet and amicable, he apologized to us for having sounded off. We told him that there was no need and wished him well in his quest for work next season. As he walked away he turned back one more time and repeated, "paved with gold" in a meaningful manner.

We sipped our frappes through their straws as the two of them drove off in a modest little hatch that had seen better days and reflected on the fact that our first impressions had been way off the mark.