Monday, 31 December 2012

Wood, Water and a Worried Greek

Takis stood ruminating, a look of grave concern on his face. I was showing him the wood-store around the back of the house and he was worried about the distance we'd have to carry the logs which we'd just arrived home with, after our expedition into the hinterland together to cut them (see the post "Self Sufficiency").

"Is there no way we can reverse the trailer round the back here?" he asked, scratching his five-o'clock shadow with his right hand. He was wearing one of those multi-pocketed quilted jackets without any sleeves. Under that he had on a thick woollen jumper, over a wool check shirt and a vest under that too I'd wager. His combat trousers had seen better days and the leg-pockets bulged with all sorts of mystery items. That's the thing with these Greeks, as I've mentioned before. The temperature was about 18ºC and it was mid afternoon under a sky of blue and broken cloud. A little physical labour and I was soon down to a thick short-sleeved t-shirt and jeans, even contemplating the merits of changing into some shorts. A Greek, on the other hand, like my neighbour Taki here, would be dressed for the tundra. Once the season ends it's winter. And if it's winter they're flippin' well going to dress for winter, regardless of weather conditions, which often (as I've also mentioned before, probably) may rival those of any day during a typical British summer. I've been sat in rooms in very warm houses on summer evenings out here too and seen that a male Greek was wearing a vest under his shirt!! There I would be in my short-sleeved shirt and still feeling far too hot, when I could make out the tell-tale shape of the tank-top white cotton vest showing through many a Greek's shirt. You can never be too careful it seems.

It is funny actually, that so often in the winter months our Greek friends are slapping their upper arms with their opposite hands and going "brrrr", when we Brits are going round in long-shorts and t-shirts. Quite often too the Greek will be blowing his or her nose as they deal with a cold, when we're thinking how warm it's been of late. Anyway, to return to Taki's question:

"Why?" I replied. After all, we'd been bringing home logs ourselves for several years and carrying albeit smaller loads round here from the drive out the front using the wheelbarrow. It was no big deal. But apparently Takis, ever the true Greek, was worried we'd find the exertion too much. You know, unloading a trailer-full out the front and then wheelbarrowing the wood a good thirty metres or so to the wood-store. Could do us in, or ay least do us an injury. As Kyria Dimitra in the Lardos bakery once told me, if a Greek could take his car to the toilet - he would.

"Taki," I said, "the trailer's fine out front, we'd have to dismantle a fairly substantial wooden fence to get the trailer around here from John and Wendy's side of the house, or demolish our brick-built barbecue if we come from our side. It's OK, we can move the logs by hand."

The Greek still stood, hands now on his hips, and "tch-ed" a few times. "Yianni," he continued, "why did you build the shed and wood-store all the way round here, eh? Not good, not good." This point of view of course reflects the penchant that the Greeks have for all things labour-saving and practical. Not for the Greek's house a nice flower border or decorative Yucca or three to make the approach to the house look pleasing to the eye. Taki's house has a huge corrugated iron wood-store just feet from the front door, so that he has the minimum distance to cover when fetching logs for the stove. When you arrive at Taki's and Naomi's front gate, you are immediately struck by the fact that the wood-store is half-way between the garden gate and the front door of the house. No time here for prettiness, - practicality, boy, practicality!! You'll always recognise a Brit's home, it'll look well manicured, but won't impress yer typical local Greek, who'll also be wondering why so much good soil is wasted in growing stuff that you can't actually eat too.

After I'd finally convinced my friend that we'd not flake out in the process of moving the logs, he turned to another, related subject.

"You have an axe? I mean a proper one, for splitting the logs?"

"Sure," I replied, and went into the shed to retrieve my heavy-headed iron 'log-splitter', which had been a gift from my dad some years ago when we'd still lived in South Wales. It had made the trip out here with us in "Mitsos", the white van in which we'd transported all our worldly goods when we'd driven over in August 2005. It's a rather traditional-looking long wood-handled heavy axe, with one side of the head a blade, while the other resembles a lump-hammer and is very useful for driving "re-bars" into the soil in the orchard when constructing a wind-shield for the young slips of fruit trees which in the beginning were struggling against the elements during the winter months. The problem of late, though, has been that the head has been working loose. I've been driving nails and manly-looking woodscrews into the wood at the top of the head to try and firm it up a bit, but only with limited success. The axe worked, but the head would move against the handle and I confidently expected it to fly off and in through our bedroom window some time soon, probably landing on the bed while my wife was in there taking a nap or something. That's how my luck usually goes.

Takis took it from me in a manner which suggested that he'd brook no argument. He ran his hand along the rather dull blade and vigorously wiggled the head against the wood of the handle. He didn't notice me wincing.

"You want this to last a bit longer, Yianni?"

"Of course," I replied, whilst also thinking that it would definitely last a bit longer if the head wasn't purposely being wiggled like that. "I'd been thinking about popping down to Pandeli's DIY store in Gennadi for a new handle though."

"No need, no need," he said, "fill a bucket with water and drop the head end in. Leave it overnight and it'll be fine. Probably last you another season. It's the dryness here. Wood shrinks. Not like in England, where it's so damp that wood keeps its moisture for ever. Here it dries out and you need to re-hydrate it. Shove it in a bucket of water overnight, it'll do you OK then."

After he'd gone I did as he'd suggested. I half-filled a bucket with water and dropped the axe-head into it, then left it overnight in the shed. I ran out early next morning like an excited schoolboy to see the result. I whipped the iron axe-head out of the water to see that it was covered in a  micro-thin layer of rust, which I soon cured by wiping it dry with a rag, then smearing some trusty three-in-one oil all over it (brought back in my suitcase last year from the ever-reliable branch of Halfords in Midsomer Norton). It came up good as new. Then I tried to wiggle the head against the handle. It wouldn't budge. It was fixed fast.

By mid morning we'd transferred all the logs to the wood-store and I was able to call Taki to tell him to collect the trailer. I couldn't contain my delight over the re-invigorated axe. Once I'd told him how delighted I was, he replied in his usual dismissive way. "Aach, you British need us Greeks. After all, what do you have that we didn't invent, eh? That applies to ideas too!"

I knew that he was being a little tongue-in-cheek, but I agreed and deferred, of course.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Flowers, Fowl and Far Away From it All

A few pics of the flowers in our garden taken on Dec 25th...

The foreground flowers are Gazania, which are wonderfully blousy and come in loads of colours

Gazania close-up

These are Lantana, which you see everywhere these days. They flower almost all year round

Love this rose, it's a "Penindafila", meaning fifty petals, whereas the usual rose is called "triandafila" or thirty petals. We'd call it a "double" (I think!).

And a house near the beach between Kiotari and Gennadi...
No reason, just liked the ducks and chickens running free!

And on Glystra Beach, same day...
Yes, while the rest of the world observed Saturnalia, the feast of the re-born, unconquered sun, we walked to Glystra, sunbathed in 21ºc and even went in the sea!! (Trevor and Gloria would have approved, that's an "in" joke.)

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Getting the Bird...

Our house is doing its bit to help the waning numbers of house sparrows. Well, I know it's particularly in the UK that their numbers are declining, but I wouldn't be surprised if it weren't also true here in Greece. Around the house and under the carports (our side and John and Wendy's) we estimate that there are probably a dozen nests and we're OK with that because, under the pitched terracotta tiled roof of the house itself there's a concrete slab for a roof, so the nests don't really do any harm, plus the occupants provide us with endless hours of pleasure, especially when the young are nearing their time to fledge.

Now and again we have to warn away Simba the cat, when he decides that a nice place to squat down on his haunches, ears all perked up and eyes concentrated on one particular direction, is behind the Agave Americana just a couple of metres from the flower bed where we throw the crumbs, but as a rule our sparrow population is quite safe and secure.

Well, I ought to say, was quite safe and secure. Why? because of late we've been conscious a lot more often of a silent "swoosh" as a bird of prey (evidently) "whooshed" past us while we've been taking coffee, or perhaps pottering around in the garden. There have been a few moments when we've almost felt the rush of air from its wings, it's come that close. 

Now, when we lived in our last house in the UK we used to have bird-feeder especially designed to take "Nyjer" seeds. We'd ordered it (and our first supply of the seeds) from the RSPB website (excellent, by the way, if you're in the UK that is!) especially designed to attract goldfinches [that link ought to take you to the excellent Keith Christmas' "Burdz" photo album on Facebook, in particular to a shot of a goldfinch on the same kind of feeder as we used to have]. We had to get used to the fact that our feeder was so successful, often being covered with goldfinches all squabbling to get at the seeds, that it soon became the local fast-food joint for sparrowhawks as well.

Photo courtesy of
We would frequently look out and see a Sparrowhawk sitting on the fence at the end of the garden, waiting for his (or her) lunch to arrive at the feeder, whereupon it would silently make its deadly swoop, grab a hapless goldfinch and be off away into the trees nearby to alight and enjoy its meal. My wife was pretty upset the first couple of times that this happened, but we all have to accept that it's how nature works. It's still a wonder to behold, despite our sentimentality about the poor victim. The rest of the goldfinches would very soon resume their attack on the Nyjer seeds, as though nothing had happened.

So, here we are now in Rhodes and this time we have a similar situation, although now with the actual prey after which the sparrowhawk is named. We do get goldfinches here too, but they don't live with us at the house. The sparrows, though, are in plentiful supply. Just yesterday we were enjoying a rotten weather day, as outside it was all grey and raining most of the time (very British), the logburner was flickering away and the afternoon was nearly over and we were both flopped out on the sofa watching a movie (very decadent, eh?), when my wife said, 

"Don't move. Look!!"

Now this was a bit silly, because in order to look where she wanted me to look, it entailed the need to move. So I moved, but everso slowly, since she was staring open-mouthed out of the French windows at the small marble table which we keep out there for coffee time. 

"It's sitting on the table. Is it a Sparrowhawk?"

It was. So I crept to my office, reeeeally slowly in case he saw me and took off. Then I crept back and snapped this...

Now, I know the quality isn't very good, not anything like as good as Keith's shots, or those of Nigel Sparks, but at least you can see him clearly. He just sat there for probably four or five minutes, before giving it up for a bad job, the sparrows no doubt all being tucked up under the eaves waiting out the weather, as indeed were we.

We were, notwithstanding the fact that some of the feathered residents around us may disappear from time to time, well pleased to see that we now have such a magnificent example of nature's flying machines living nearby.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Leaving Thessalonika

Mount Olympus shimmered in the distance, it snowcapped peaks majestic in the midday sunshine of a chilly December day. At 9570 feet, it's the highest mountain in Greece and, in case you've just stepped out of a beam of light after the manner of Mr. Bean, you'll know that it was the fabled home of the Greek Gods of old.

The mountain sits on the skyline many kilometres to the west of the second largest city in Greece, not always visible due to either high humidity or smog from the city, but on December 7th, as I was sitting in the back seat of our friend's car as he whisked my friend Mihali and I back to the airport from the city, the mountain graced us with a superb show of snow-capped stateliness. The sky was very blue and created the impression that the snowy pinnacles of the mount were suspended in the air above the ground. I found it hard to tear my eyes away. Of course, the frequent obscuring of this noble rockmass by such things as the many huge out-of-town shopping complexes and stores that pepper the area around so many modern cities kept bringing my eyes back to the immediate vicinity around the car, but each time there was a gap of sufficient time or space my eyes sought Olympus out again of their own volition.

It can't fail to strike a chord with me the behaviour of the ancient Gods of this country and how closely it parallels that of the "gods' of this modern world, the movie and TV celebrities who are worshiped with much the same fervour as were the Gods on Olympus. Religion 'per se' may have waned to a large degree in the last century or so, but in reality, in the western world at any rate,  it's simply been a switch from the mysterious gods of the churches to the gods on the small and large screen. The "cult" of celebrity is quite real. Take Aphrodite for example, a stunningly beautiful woman, she was famed for having many lovers. Then there was Ares, God of - among other things - war, bloodshed and violence. He's still got millions of worshippers among cinema goers or even computer game-players nowadays. Dionysus was god of wine, parties and festivals, madness, chaos, drunkenness, drugs, and ecstasy. He was also frequently portrayed as quite effeminate. Strikes me a lot of worship goes his way during the "festive" season.

I can't watch a red-carpet event without being reminded of the ancient Greeks and their worship of the Olympian gods. You only have to look at the faces of some of those poor plebs behind the barriers, all desperate to catch a glimpse or even share a word or two with their favourite deities. You may think all this is a bit extreme, but the parallels are all there.

Thessalonika is a city with a proud heritage here in Greece. It's home to numerous cultural events, plus it's the birthplace of many of modern Greece's top singers and musicians. Stratos Dionysiou was born is Serres, but moved to Thessalonika when very young. There he rose to become the biggest star of his generation. He died in 1990 but is still played often on the traditional radio stations, of which there are many all across the country. Pascalis Terzis, Vasilis Karras and Natassa Theodoridou are all huge in Greece today and all come from Thessalonika, where the bouzouki clubs rival those of Athens and, if you were to ask a local, they'd say they surpass them.

The problem is, in wintertime it gets ruddy cold there!!! I can't quite get my head around it. It's a long way south of most of western Europe and yet, during winter it often gets snow and, during the five days I spent there in early December the temperature was around freezing overnight and not much higher during daylight hours. I reckon it must have something to do with the fact that it's at the bottom of the Balkans (and you don't want to be at the bottom of the Balkans when the north wind blows!). Immediately north of here are some pretty high mountains, plus the countries you'd travel through going north wouldn't be many before you arrived in Ukraine or Poland, perhaps Belarus and then Russia, where it gets very nippy round the old turntables, as Tony Blackburn used to say.

Still, we'd stayed with a family who are friends of Mihalis, who'd made the trip with me and they'd treated us like kings, feeding us up with a wonderful selection of home cooked dishes for the whole time we were there. They resolutely refused to accept any money to cover their expenses, even though times are tough for them. The husband, also a Mihalis, is retired and his wife also lives on a modest pension, which, of course has been reduced by something like 40% in the past year or so.

Greeks eat some pretty odd things for breakfast. They often lay the table with that huge round brown sponge with a hole in the middle, or they'll spread butter on a slice of bread and add some cheese, some ham or a few olives. Often, as was the case with our host, they'll make do with a cup of Elleniko coffee. It may be short on nutrition, but doesn't half kick start them for the day, eh? Our hosts were well amused at their British guest, as I asked on the first evening for a breakfast bowl into which I could pour some of the muesli that I'd brought along in my case, so that I could add a little water to soak it overnight. Apart from the fact that they were bemused over quite what the muesli was, they were even more perplexed when I refused milk and simply wanted water to pour onto it. I tried to explain that the oats in the mix would produce their own "milk" as they absorbed the water during the night, but they just shook their heads, smiled and remarked on how weird I was.

The first morning at breakfast, when I asked if there was perhaps a piece of fruit that I could chop on to my muesli, Dimitra (the wife) produced some beautiful green apples and proudly announced that they were their own. In other words, they'd grown them on their own trees. Now it was my turn to be perplexed. Here they were living in an apartment on the third floor in the great urban sprawl of the northern suburbs of this huge city, and they're telling me that they have apple trees. In fact, all through the week we ate their produce, from white radishes on the salad to root vegetables and all kinds of other delicious stuff. Turns out that they have a house, an actual house, not just a "kaliva", many km out of town, but they can't afford to live out there because there's no work. Their son Petros was going for interviews and exams to see if he could get work as a bus driver even while we were there, so they had no choice but to live in the city. But Mihalis treks out there every so often to tend his crops and trees.

Tell you what was really good though. They have gas central heating!!! You can't get that on the islands. Not that it's a huge necessity down here on Rhodes, but further north it's a huge advantage, as it's still the cheapest way to heat a home during the winter months.

Anyway, we arrived back at Macedonia Airport, just south of the city, at around 12.45pm, checked in with Aegean, got rid of the cases and began that rather irritating process of shuffling up and down in a bustling queue, between those pull-out tapes that are attached to the metal posts that we're all so familiar with as we queued to get through that x-ray machine for your hand baggage and that electronic arch you have to walk through after first removing your belt, and throwing your wallet, your phone and your fillings into a little plastic tray. Internal flights are a little easier than international ones in that you don't have to arrive two hours before departure and there's no passport control or customs to slow you down. But you still have all that security stuff which is such a necessary although depressing aspect of flying nowadays.

Mind you, although I have little time for religion in general, there's something to be said for being a priest in the Orthodox Church. Whilst all of us poor lay-people queued for the best part of twenty-five minutes just to get into the departure lounge, a couple of portly priests, their bellies under those flowing black robes displaying the evidence of a pretty good lifestyle and their bearded chins held high, were immediately ushered through a glass door at the side by some uniformed official or other, where they found themselves right at the front of the queue before you could say Vatopedi scandal!! Miracles do still happen, but only for the select few it seems.

I wondered if they'd been up to Olympus lately, you know, to ensure the favour of a few deities for their journey. Seems to have worked!

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Self Sufficiency?

Richard Briers and Felicity Kendall we may not be (apologies to non-UK readers, for whom those names probably don't mean very much), but of late it's seemed that we are indeed living something resembling "The Good Life" of the 1970s TV series.

For the past few days, as we've watched the early evening news on Alpha, I've been seated on the sofa with two large bowls on my lap. No, I haven't had a dose of the jippy tummy. I've been cracking walnuts. I returned from my trip to Thessaloniki with thousands of the things. My wife suggested that, rather than just sit there with an ouzo and orange juice in my hand, I could make myself useful by cracking the shells to release the brain-resembling kernels inside, so that, after a few sessions in similar vein, we'd have jarred up a considerably ample supply of these nuts that so resemble the brain from a pickled head.

It's funny isn't it, how life's so full of coincidences. I mean, there I was just contemplating the nutritional value of plant-based omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid, when Mihalis and Dimitra, my genial and very generous hosts in Thessalonika, decide to give me a huge supply of the stuff in convenient dried nut form, all wrapped up in a plastic shopping bag. Yes, apparently, walnuts are a key source of ALA (the abbreviation for plant-based omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid!) and it has huge health benefits. According to one report by the BBC I read recently, one of the chief benefits of the fatty acid found in walnuts is something that I kind of miss out on these days. It relates to the younger man and his chances of producing progeny with his partner of similar vintage, apparently. Go on, read it for yourself if you like. There, see? I did tell you.

So, yes, we're well endowed - with walnuts I mean - and, as my wife points out owing to her eye for all things thrifty, we've got ourselves a few Euros worth here and we should be grateful. From here on in I can look forward to a more regular supply of walnut cake, of walnuts replacing or at least augmenting the whole hazels that we sprinkle on our muesli of a morning, and who knows - maybe a nut roast or two in the weeks to come. Tell you what, I can touch a thumb to my nose and twiddle my fingers at Type 2 diabetes as well, if this report is to be believed.

It's not just the walnut situation that's prompted the "Good Life" analogy. We've been strolling the orchard and can now take immense pride in the fact that both the grapefruit and lemon trees out there are laden with delicious yellow globe-shaped and - well, lemon-shaped - offerings. The grapefruit tree has more fruit on it than ever and the lemons on the lemon tree are larger than they've been since it first fruited three or four years ago. Only yesterday we were having a coffee in the tiny traditional kafenion, which is perched precariously on a corner at the bottom of Gennadi square, when I found myself studying the lemon tree in the front yard of the house opposite. The lemon tree is a minor miracle. A major one, even. It produces impossibly-useful fruit which can be left on the branches all year round and just picked as and when needed. Got some limescale to remove from your kettle? Couple of lemon chunks left in there in some freshly boiled water should do the trick. Need to remove stains from the shower basin? Bit of neat lemon juice rubbed in soon shifts those. There is a whole host of handy uses to which to put a lemon, the most important being, of course, a slice in your G and T or your VAT.

Too, our little Bulgarian friend Dhopi has been plying us with oranges this winter, as per usual. Several shopping bagfuls a week to be honest. All yesterday morning Y-Maria was "juicing" and this has led to the freezer now being chock-full of freshly squeezed juice. Plus we enjoyed a huge glass of the stuff with our lunch as we sat outside in the sunshine to eat it yesterday as well. A better glass of orange juice I have never tasted.

Finally, to complete the "Good Life" theme, last week we finally, after several years of talking about it, made a trip into "them thar hills" with our neighbours from down the valley, Taki and Naomi (his French wife) to do some serious logging to top up the woodstore for the winter. Mind you, this winter so far has been a stark contrast to the last one, which was the coldest in thirty years. We started using the logburner a full three weeks earlier in late 2011. This year we only lit it for the first time two nights ago, it's been that mild overnight. Tonight, as I type this at 1.00am, it's reading 6ºC outside, so we had it flickering away during the evening. The place is warm as toast, lovely.

It's a good way to illustrate the better side of the Greek nature, this. Yes, everyone thinks that your average Greek would sell his own granny if it meant a few more notes in his hip pocket. But Greek kindness on a neighbourly level is second to none. Takis told us several years ago that we ought to go with them when we go logging. Apart from anything else, he has a license. Now, as far as we understand it, you don't need a license to cut lumber for your own use, only if you intend to sell it. nevertheless, if the Greek "boys in blue" were to happen by whilst you're droning away with your chainsaw, the fact that a license is nearby and can be whipped out in a trice is quite reassuring.

I say that and yet, there was precious little likelihood of any vehicle getting near to us in the spot where Takis took us on this occasion, leave alone a Police car. Some years ago, when we did the olive harvest with "Dimitri the Horse", he'd taken us over the hills and so far away that we'd decided with absolute certainty that, had he abandoned us and fled with the pickup, we'd have been discovered years later as a couple of skeletons under a tree. We were that lost and that far from civilisation. Well, the morning of our planned logging trip having arrived, we were summoned to the front gate at around 11.00am (early start then) by the sound of Taki's 4x4 horn. Off we went and loaded our chainsaw into the back, taking note of the empty trailer which was hooked on behind, then we piled in and off he drove. We passed the village of Asklipio on the back road, which is just dirt, then plied on, through a maze of dirt lanes, past numerous families engaged in their olive harvests, all with their huge nets spread wide to catch the little marvels as they fell, some harvesters sitting on plastic crates taking their sustenance of cheese chunks, village bread and bottled water. Everyone waved at us without exception. Either Takis and Naomi know everyone in this region, or people are just that courteous. Somewhere between the two I guess. Rhodes ruined by tourism? Give me a break.

After probably three quarters of an hour driving around, occasionally stopping to point at or peruse a fallen burnt tree trunk for the ease of access and possible quantity of fuel which it may yield, we finally drove into a clearing among some tall pines, most of which were still alive and sporting lots of green needles. Takis instructed the ladies and I to hop out, while he gamely drove the 4x4 even further into the trees, where the undergrowth was well over bumper-height, until he'd come to within a few feet of the horizontal trunk which he'd selected as our goal. The smell of oregano filled our senses as the jeep bruised the leaves as it progressed further from the track.

Executing a few skilful manoeuvres, Takis brought the truck and trailer around so that, once we'd begun cutting the logs, they could be thrown into the back with ease. Soon the drone of two chainsaws could be heard echoing through the forest and clearings as he and I set about "logging" in earnest. Naomi set out on a flat stone a picnic comprising a couple of flasks of hot coffee with four ceramic mugs, some chocolate, some choccy-chip cookies and some delicious home-made bread for the hungry workers to attack as and when we got hungry, which in my case was immediately. Me and my better half were instantly aware that we'd omitted to consider the need for sustenance. It didn't matter, Naomi had packed enough for the four of us. My wife, bless her, set about lugging the cut logs from where they fell from the hot saw-blade to right beside the trailer, where Takis told her to just sling them in and he'd start organising them when there were enough in there to warrant it.

After a couple of hours the trailer was full to head-height with an impressive haul of lumber, which we fully expected to share 50-50 once we got home. We set off again and once more Y-Maria and I were bewildered by the criss-crossing of various dirt tracks and were soon lost as we crested hills and crossed small valleys, trailer bumping and clanging behind our heads, before finally emptying out on to the tarmac road just north of Asklipio village. Birds of prey swooped and hovered above and things rustled in the undergrowth as we passed. We drove into the village along lanes so narrow that you had to breath in, then stopped in the wider ones and the village square as Takis rolled his window down to exchange politely shouted pleasantries with everyone we passed, without exception, whether they were in a vehicle or on foot.

We got home to our place, which is a kilometre further up the valley from theirs, and Takis drove the trailer up on to our drive. By now it was mid afternoon and we probably only had about 90 minutes of daylight remaining. To unload the trailer and wheelbarrow the wood around to the woodstore behind the house was liable to take longer. No matter, the pair of them assured us, they'd leave the trailer on our drive and we could call them, once we'd emptied it, to come and collect it. It was all we could do to dissuade them from helping us get all the logs shifted before they left, but we insisted, we could handle it ourselves. What humbled us was hearing, on suggesting as we did that we just drop our half of the haul on the drive where it was, that it was all for us, every last lovely round log of it. They'd planned this expedition purely for our benefit. They'd spent the greater part of the day using their vehicle, their trailer, their chainsaw (inc. fuel and chain oil of course) and their food and drink - all for us, just so that we could have a decent supply of wood for our stove this winter. All the way through the day we'd assumed that we'd split the results of our labour, but they wouldn't hear of it.

As they drove out through the gate, minus the trailer, we were profuse in our thanks, but they smiled, waved and told us that was what neighbours were for. In fact, Takis took a look at our shiny new car under its carport and suggested that, if we did need any more lumber before the winter was out, we were to go into the hills, select a trunk, cut what we needed and then call him on the mobile, whereupon he'd be happy to drive up there with the trailer and bring the stuff back for us.

Have trailer - will go logging!

"You'll not be wanting to chuck filthy logs into the back of that car, least not for a year or two yet." he said.

Actually, we've now got that much wood out the back, we reckon it'll get us half way through the next winter too! The next day we shifted all the wood around to the back, where my ever industrious better half set about sorting and stacking it (See the pic in the previous post, "Climate Change") and then she swept out the trailer in readiness for Takis to come and collect it. When he turned up I thanked him and Naomi again and told them we couldn't be more grateful and how could they do all this without reward. Takis replied, "Johnny," [a lot of Greeks call me Johnny, since they can't handle single syllable names, for some odd reason], "That's how we are. We don't go to church, don't believe in a lot of the sanctimonious stuff, but that's our belief. That's our religion. Be to your neighbours what you'd like them to be to you. Payback always arrives some time."

We're planning to prove him right on that one soon. Here I suppose the "Good Life" analogy ends, since no way could you see Takis and Naomi as Margot and Jerry, now could you.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Climate Change

Following the last set of shots taken on a beautifully bright day, below are included, among a few others, some shots of the way the weather's been changing of late. It's remained mild, but we've actually had some half-decent rain, which is good news. I've been up in Thessalonika for the best part of a week (Sunday 2nd  - Fri 7th). More about that later. While I was away, my better half, not one to be got the better of (is that actually English?), took a couple of shots when the clouds were piled high.

Plus, with my old mobile phone I took a couple more at our friends' house of their cute little invaders, the tree frogs. Plus there are a couple of odd photos of this and that...

This was the sky from our place on November 21st. We may not get it all that often, but when we do get stormy weather, it has me running for the camera. The kind of skies we get I wouldn't miss for the world, although we do tend to run inside once they get close enough to throw their contents down at us.

Same day as above. The system had become much closer and once again the sky was totally amazing.

Monday November 26th, at Asklipio. Just arrived to collect our mail. Loved this angle, showing the gourds in the terraced garden below the Agapitos Taverna, right up to the tower of Asklipio Kastro.

Thursday November 29th. We'd been up in the hills with our neighbours on a wood-run. Here the better half does what she does best, she gets stuck in!!

Friday morning December 7th. The day I was flying home from Thessalonika. Y-Maria was delighted to see a complete rainbow just above the hill beside the house, but she couldn't get it all in shot!

Come on, you do agree don't you. The 'aaaaah' factor kicks in here. One of those beautiful little tree frogs standing sentinel on a jardinière at our friends' house. Every now and again he'd (or maybe she'd) pipe up a bit. Can't describe their little warble very accurately, but "cute" does the job pretty well.

Same guest, different angle. Bernard, householder in background. We all agreed, "How the Dickens do they get up there?"
Next post will be a bit about the Thessalonika trip.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

A Diseased Tree and Two Disparate Housewives

Tues 27th. November. We drove toward Arhangelos with the ever-present reminders as to what time of year it is all around and ahead of us. Every so often the road bore evidence of weary olive-harvesters having already passed this way in their pickups, either taking their olives to the mill, or perhaps transporting precious logs for winter fuel homeward, the latter having deposited olive twigs and sprigs at regular intervals along the route. Josie, my friend and fellow writer (From Lindos With Love) had called and we had sprung into action (Thundergardeners are go, Scott!). One diseased tree near the house needed drastic surgery, plus there were various other odd jobs that she needed a bit of help with.

Soon thereafter I was up on a wall wielding the chainsaw to severely decrease the size of the ailing fruit tree, whilst the better half was strimming for all she was worth. As it happened, we'd arrived a little early for Josie and she'd gone off to shop for a while. It didn't matter, we knew what we had to get on with and do did so, safe in the knowledge that she'd soon be back home. The only problem which developed was, we'd forgotten where she leaves the house key and the old bladder soon began to require a decreasing of internal pressure. With Josie still not having returned, we decided a frappe was a good idea anyway and so walked the few minutes or so to Arhangelos' main street, where we flopped into a couple of chairs in the sunshine and - once the coffees were ordered, proceeded in shifts to go to the kafenion's loos.

I was reminded during my turn, whilst standing there in the semi-darkness provided by a 40 watt bulb, of all the taverna-loo experiences of yesteryear. I'm sure you know the drill. Quite often you could enter the cubicle to find that the whole tiny room is tiled up to about eye-height, which gives one the distinct impression that the place is OK. I mean OK as in creepy-crawly-free. The mistake one would make was to look higher than the top layer of tiles. This loo was very much in the old style. The tiles (although a mucky brown colour; why do they do that?) did indeed go up to about eye height, but above that the walls were a kind of very rough stucco effect, with every little ridge of the stuff thick with dust. There was no window to speak of, merely two or three unfinished holes through the walls where some pipes ran, and through which there was only dense darkness to be seen. Add to the effect created by this uncertainty the fact that the edges of these holes were well lined with old cobwebs and you have the makings of a Greek-loo danger alert. See, the thing is, you could complete your business in such a cubicle with no problem whatsoever and most times will, but there is always that horrible possibility that something with more than two legs, and in the worst case scenario, eight, could emerge from one of these apertures and you, that's if you're a bloke of course, can't do a thing about it. I mean, whilst you're busy making sure that your aim is steady, you can't afford to go thrashing around in wild attempts to extinguish the life of some scary scuttling thing which threatens to jump on to your face, now can you? And let's be honest, as and when such creatures do faze you, they're always going to be hatching a plan to jump on to you aren't they? Of course they are.

Anyway, I survived and was soon back outside in the sunshine, allowing my cold sweat to gradually dry. Tell you what, those fading b-list folk on "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here" (which I've never watched anyway) wouldn't stand an earthly in an old-style Greek loo. There are still some to be found in Arhangelos, take it from me. Mind you, as a plus-point, the drinks were cheap and we were soon strolling back to Josie's, having received a text saying that she was now home.

Not long afterwards I was again up on the wall and Josie was directing as to which boughs would have to go and which could stay to fight another day. Once we'd lopped most of the poor unfortunate tree's last decade of growth, we were faced with the task of clipping all the stuff I'd cut down to manageable size for disposal. Once again I was chainsawing the larger boughs and branches, with Josie and Y-Maria secateuring for all they were worth, when two women from across the road, both in black and probably widowed, approached up the lane from the street excitedly pointing at the smaller logs and twigs that had begun to pile up on Josie's path. We hailed them. They replied, pretty sharpish:

"What are you going into do with that wood? Can we have it? We don't have fuel for the winter, we haven't got a man to cut it for us. Could we have it, please? Could we?" Oddly enough, they were carrying a couple of plastic crates. Nothing like thinking positively is there.

My wife's first reaction was to say that we have a log-burner and so would be taking it home, but she quickly realised that it would be a nice gesture to let these women have it. We already had plans to go logging with some of our neighbours later in the week and they have a trailer, so we're not going to go short this winter anyway.

When we told Josie's two unfortunate neighbours that they could indeed have the wood, they were very excited and arrived at our sides in seconds. No sooner could I cut some foot-long logs and branches than they had them stacked into the crates and before long we'd cut all that we could that would be of any use. They were very appreciative and couldn't thank us enough. They asked us to convey their appreciation to the Anglida (the Englishwoman) and swore that they thought she was only inches short of being beatified. Whilst me and the missus headed off in the car to purchase some heavy duty black bags, Josie and the two neighbours three-handedly carried a huge pile of green waste on a tarpaulin about fifty metres to the nearest wheelie bin and shot the whole lot into it.

Buying black bags is another palaver. In the UK you just nip into any local store and there's a nice choice of variously sized and coloured bags, usually sold in a roll of, say, ten. You can select the heavy duty ones (usually black) and soon be back home stuffing them for all you're worth. Here it's not quite as straightforward. The only supermarkets which seem to have a regular supply are those in Rhodes town, which is, of course, a bit far for the likes of us to just nip out and buy some. We tried the DIY store within walking distance of Josie's, no joy. Then we drove to the large builders' merchant on the main road, where an excited woman at the till shouted instructions to a bloke who ran up this aisle and down that one, (It was like supermarket sweep, only without the 'sweep') only to finally discover that they only had the small domestic ones, fit for the kitchen bin. I mean, why would a huge builders' merchant, with piles of bricks and sand outside in the yard, only stock tiny domestic rubbish bags?

Anyway, off we went again and went into the garden centre, also on the main road. We like this place and the people who run it are a very friendly and helpful family. I'd been in there very recently to buy a new yard brush, so the girl behind the counter greeted me warmly and asked what I'd forgotten to buy from before. I told her I wanted some heavy duty plastic bags. She replied:

"What are you going to use them for?" I was tempted to say I'd chopped up the body of the bloke I'd just axe-murdered and the heavy duty ones tended to be better for not leaking blood, but thought better of it.
"I've got a lot of garden waste. You know, pointy twigs and stuff too."

"Aah," she replied, with some degree of drama I thought. "You'll be wanting the black ones then." She said this as though wanting the "black" ones meant I'd reeeeally got a job on my hands.
"Yes, I would." I replied. She began to retreat from the desk and, just as she was disappearing behind a shelf unit stacked with all kinds of whatever, into the bowels of the "staff-only" area, she called out,

"How many do you want?"
I was tempted to reply, 'three hundred', when it struck me that they didn't have these in paper-wrapped rolls of ten then. 

"Ten would do!" I answered.

There then came the sound of all sorts of activity, involving a fair bit of that noise that PVC sacks make when being man (or woman in this case) - handled. Some minutes later she finally emerged and came to the desk carrying the bags. Eureka! I thought. "How much?" I asked, fully expecting this to knock me sideways, when she said "€3.50 please."

Not half bad in the end. Once we'd returned to Josie's and inspected them we were well pleased and Josie agreed that these would be re-usable for quite some time to come. The only irritant was how much a of rigmarole it had been to finally procure them. We were reminded of the time when we'd tried to buy hot water bottles. We'd had to go to the pharmacy in the end and the assistant had brought them out from the deepest recesses of the storeroom behind the counter. Dangerous things hot water bottles if they happen to fall into the wrong hands. Likewise black bags I'd say.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The Light Fantastic

November 12th was one of those glorious days when the humidity is very low and everything glows in the kind of light that the Greek islands are famous for. The early part of the month was blessed with a couple of weeks of the kind of settled and warm weather that so often comes during the month of November. Yes it's sometimes punctuated with periods of cloud and rain, which is good and everyone loves it. But then the sun comes out again and we can swim and do the gardening in temperatures ranging from 20 to 25ºC.

The light being so crisp and fantastic on that Monday, I found a pretext to go out in the car and snap a few coastal shots in the local area. So, folks, here they are...

View near the entrance to the Lindos Mare Hotel. Vlicha Bay and Kalathos Beach in the distance.

Same place as above, only looking the other way!

Is that place magnificent or what? How wonderful to see the sharp shadows as the sun is lower in the sky now. DG's house clearly visible too.

At the Pefkos end of Psaltos Bay. Feeling a bit bucolic (bet that one got ya, eh? Look it up!!)

From Pefkos "top" towards Lardos Beach and beyond

Heading out toward Lothiarika from Pefkos. Not far from the Illysion

Similar spot. With Kiotari across the bay.

Just trying to be arty. Never  gonna match up to Nigel Sparks though, boo hoo.

And, yes, it is swimmable. the water's still only just dipping (did you catch the subtle pun there?) below 20ºC.

Lardos Beach
 A couple of days after this, we had a frappé at the Gré Cafe, down the road from our place here in Kiotari, where we sat next to a nice couple who've just retired and returned to their home village of Asklipio after several decades of living in Canada. They introduced themselves as Yanni and Georgia. They'd lived in Montreal for 40 years and were happy to tell us that they were glad to be receiving their pensions from the Canadian Government, which means that they won't be hit too hard by the austerity measures here. 

What was most interesting was something they told us about the sea here in Kiotari. From the front of the Gré Café you can see the sea just below the Rodos Maris Hotel across the road. As we were remarking on how inviting it looked, Yannis told us that he believed that under the water out there, not too far from the beach, there are still some huge stone columns. George, one of the two Georges who run the café, also said that he'd heard from divers that there were also some stone armchairs, perhaps thrones of sorts, that had been seen by sponge and octopus divers.

It just goes to bear out what we so often hear. When my wife asked why these artefacts hadn't yet been recovered, the answer was that there is simply too much "archeology" around this island. The fact is there is a lifetime's worth (and more) of stuff out there under the sea, and also under the soil on the island, still to be discovered.

Yea, well, OK. Maybe another day then!!

(As usual, if you'd like to see the photos in more detail, hover your mouse over a pic and then click. Once you get the new view, you can make them even larger by right-clicking and selecting "View image". You'll then notice that your pointer is a magnifying glass, click and it gets even larger!!)

Friday, 16 November 2012

Kalymnos Trip 3 (told you, didn't I!)

See, now there you were out there thinking, "he's never gonna get around to another post about that short break in Kalymnos", when he goes and turns up with it. Here it is, part three...

That reads, "Καλ' Οδον, abbreviated from Καλα Οδον (Deliberate mistake!! see comments below)

The front at Myrties

Myrties and Masouri

A view of Chrysoheria Castle on the hill as we wearily walked back into Pothia after a total of four hours on foot!

"If it were up to me I'd shot his kneecaps off!" So spoke the proprietor of the "Kal' Odon" (The Good Road, or Good Way. ...Actually, since I got it wrong [see comments below] I ought to add here that it's actually kath odon - roadside) Kafeneion in the village of Panormos, to which we'd repaired for a well-earned frappé break during a much longer than expected walk from Pothia to Myrties, on the island's west coast and facing the coast of Telendos, the tiny island situated just across the way.

Having acquired a map of the island and perused our walking options, we decided to walk from Pothia to Myrties, after I'd attempted to gauge the distance and declared that we ought to be able to make it in about an hour, or just over. Having now passed an hour on the road and having only reached Panormos, we had good reason to stop for a break. October 18th it may have been, but it was exceedingly hot still, and liquid refreshment was definitely an essential by now.

Also, from a few hundred metres after leaving the hotel's front door, the better half had been saying, "We must find a bakery. I need to buy us some bread, to keep us going until this evening." To which I'd replied, on innumerable occasions by the time we'd reached Panormos, "There's bound to be one any minute now. There are always bakeries in villages". By the time we'd reached Panormos my conviction was wearing thin and I was getting earache from my wife who had started repeating the bright idea that we should have toured the backstreets of Pothia before setting out along the road, since we'd not passed a singly bakery (least, not one which was actually open) in an hour of walking. Even the delightful village of Horio hadn't yielded the desired result and I'd confidently had to assure her that we'd be bound to come across one sooner or later, she just needed to have a little faith. Trouble was, it was becoming more difficult to assert that she ought to have faith in me when my own faith in myself was beginning to falter.

So, when we came across the "Kal' Odon" we'd become a little fractious with each other anyway, but at least the sight of such a traditional bar cheered us up a jot. The bonus was, no sooner had we ordered a couple of frappés, than we glanced across to the other side of the road to see a large sign saying "Artopoleon" yes, BAKERY!! What's more, it was open. No sooner had we clocked it than the cafe proprietor trotted across the road with a frappe for the woman within, who was very friendly when selling my wife a couple of delicious psomakis.

Having settled down to sip our straws and gulp from the cool glasses of water which were served along with the iced coffees, we got down to the business of listening to the café man talking to another couple of regulars about the hot topic of the day. Incidentally, in the post "A Stopgap Measure" the photo of the two old guys playing backgammon was taken at this very kafeneion. It was now that we overheard the comment at the top of this post. Unable to contain herself at this, my wife interjected into their chat to ask what they were talking about.

Now the bloke who ran this Kafeneion was anything but typical-looking. He looked more like a reject from a Hell's Angels audition. He was very tall, thirty-something, broad-shouldered and wore faded jeans and a black vest top, which showed off his ample pects plus the tattoos which covered large areas of his shoulders and upper arms. That said, he proved to be a very friendly and affable guy and he was delighted to explain his apparently needlessly aggressive comment.

"It's this man who we're all getting sick and fed up of," he explained, "We all know who it is and he's stealing from people's houses and gardens and the police aren't interested in doing anything about it. He's the bad apple and this island would be better off without him and his tatty little family." Apparently, the previous night he'd been spotted once again fleeing the scene of a house break-in. It seemed that he was indeed known to be a felon and, for some reason or other, the police hadn't done anything about apprehending him. One's first reaction to such a story could be to decide that it's not safe on a Greek island any more. This would be a kneejerk response. The very fact that a few locals were talking in this way demonstrates the fact that, mercifully, such things are still the exception rather than the rule out here, even though the austerity measures have indeed resulted in a rise in petty crime. Only the fool would assert that the islands are crime-free, but we still feel a great deal safer out here than in most of the UK to be honest.

The comment about shooting the bloke's kneecaps was an exaggeration born out of exasperation that this low-life had apparently been getting up to no good for far too long without having been brought to justice. Our host was indicating his desire to do something desperate in order to cramp the criminal's style.

Our frappés consumed and a few coins having been deposited on the table, we bade goodbye to our new friends, including the fellows playing backgammon and set off once again for Myrties, to the sound of those we were leaving behind us expressing admiration and bemusement that we'd walk so far.

About another forty-five minutes later we finally descended the hairpin bends of the hill dropping down to Myrties, only to be very disappointed by the seafront there. Having been hopeful that the sea would be calm and that there would still remain a few sunbeds along the strand, we were let down on both counts and so walked along the beach even further until we came to Masouri, where we ascended some steps to a hotel terrace which advertised that the pool area was open to all. We became some of the 'all' and settled into a couple of hours of serious chilling. Well, we'd hoped that this would be the case but, although there were only a few people around the poolside, these included a family with two children of somewhere around 10 to 12 years of age who spent the whole time running around the pool, jumping in and screaming a lot.

Ah well, at least it was warm and I had my iPod, so I could shut out the world for a while. Mad we may be, but we also made the trip back later that afternoon on foot. We'd done over four hours walking by the time we got back to the hotel room, punctuated by probably two or three hours recuperating poolside.

For all that, we both felt that delicious tiredness that only a lot of physical exertion can give one. Plus, before us there was the prospect of another taverna evening in the bustle of the harbour below our balcony. Gin and tonics poured and placed on the balcony table, we sat and watched the sky darken before venturing out to see what the evening would bring.

This hill dominates the northern side of the valley as you climb out of Pothia
 . Click to view the image, and you'll see a fascinating abandoned village up there among the rocks

Kalymnos Trip-1 Post
Kalymnos Trip-2 Post

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Stegna Safari

Visiting Josie in Arhangelos yesterday, as we left at around 3.15pm we decided that, since we were so close, we may as well nip down to Stegna and take a couple of out-of-season photos.

Big mistake. If you're familiar with the road from Arhangelos down to Stegna you'll know that it probably takes about ten minutes to follow the road from the centre of the village along the river conduit, past the olive press and up the hill, then past the T-junction with the road that leads left, past the Tramonto Bar and back up to the main Lindos Road just above the Health Centre, and on down to the front at Stegna. If you've visted the area during the 2012 season, you can't fail to have noticed that there's been a fairly big earth-moving and re-landscaping thing going on down the steep part of this road for the entire summer. Quite what they had in mind we didn't know until yesterday. We have a better idea now.

Heading along the road out from Arhangelos we were just about to pass the right fork which leads up a few narrow backstreets to the Castro when we noticed a large, new and unmissable sign pointing up that lane and saying: "PROS SEGNA", TO STEGNA. Having no alternative but to take the right fork in obedience to the new sign, we were soon wondering quite where they were sending us. Pretty soon we left the "suburbs" of Arhangelos behind and were driving along a winding dirt road through some olive groves and it was quit evident that whatever direction we were going in, it wasn't the right one for Stegna.

The further we went the more agitated my better half became. "This isn't right. We must have gone wrong somewhere." She asserted. I replied that I'd watched the new signs and that we were definitely going where directed, notwithstanding the fact that Stegna was nowhere in sight, just a winding road of one moment concrete, the next dirt, heading away into the distance and over a ridge a kilometre or so away. At least we could see the sea!

Pretty soon there was precious little sign of civilisation, and none at all of Stegna. There was, however, the small compensation of this scene at one point:

Nice, eh?

After another ridge or two had been crested, and one or two very, very steep inclines negotiated, I was surprised, to say the least, to spot the seaside resort we were seeking ahead and still a couple of kilometres away. Just when I'd expected to come across Paul Hogan, standing in the middle of the road waving his two end fingers gently at a wildebeest or something, there was our destination, promising to be within reach in, ...oooh, about ten more minutes!!

As the eagle-eyed among you will have noticed from the shot above, we were approaching Stegna Bay from entirely the opposite end from that which we'd expected to. The usual winding road drops down the hillside to the North of the village and here were were getting our first sight of the place from far to the South. By now my wife's bladder was adding to the exasperation which she was feeling and even I was getting pretty fed up with how, what was to have been a quick dash down a hill, was turning into a safari.

Finally, after negotiating a couple more narrow sections where there were still puddles of mud from the rains of a few days previous, and driving down a few lanes which were so steep that you could hardly have stood erect on them on foot, not to mention that they were so narrow that it would have been a disaster if we'd met a vehicle coming the other way, we emptied out on to Stegna seafront. Where I took this...

Following a few more grumbles from my wife, now suffering from the excessive amount of fluid stored in her bladder, I resolved to attempt the return trip by driving up the usual lane, which ought to bring us up to the junction just below the Tramonto, where I'd planned to take the right in order to pass the said bar and regain the main Rodo-Lindos road in short order.

No good. We only got a couple of hundred yards up the lane to be confronted by a complete road block, festooned with signs telling us that there was no way we'd be going up that road for the 'foreseeable' and beckoning us follow the diversion signs, which soon had us re-climbing the precipitous hill to the South of the bay where I'd taken the second photo shown above.

By the time we eventually regained the outskirts of Arhangelos my wife was briliiant scarlet of face and groaning a little and we'd lost 45 minutes on a wild goose chase that ought to have taken twenty minutes max.

Quite how those few tavernas and bars in Stegna are going to survive this winter with such a ridiculously long, bumpy and in places quite dangerous detour to be negotiated by their potential clientele is a mystery. I mentioned to Y-Maria that I'd hate to have to make that trip either at night, when you'd be driving across some wholly wild Greek rural terrain totally exposed to the worst that the elements could throw at you, or in the rain, when large tracts of the lane would be a complete nightmare of deep mud.

She didn't reply. For some reason she was somewhat preoccupied with the need for me to put a couple of Km of road between us and Arhangelos and find a place to stop where there was an ample supply of bushes. I got this message through her body language.

I hope you Stegna fans out there appreciate the lengths to which we'll go to snap a shot or two for you!!!

PS: Looks like the normal Stegna access road will re-open at some stage. It's just that the size of the job they're doing has necessitated closing the road for an unspecified period.

Part three of the Kalymnos report will follow soon, honest.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Full of Ourselves?

Why do travel writers write, if not to sound off about their experiences, in the belief that some of the people in that big wide world out there may find what they read interesting and enriching, perhaps even entertaining? I mean, let's face it, there aren't enough hours in a life for all of us to go everywhere and see everything that there is to see on this rather interesting planet of ours, I'm sure you'd agree. So we the great public content ourselves to taste faraway places and experiences through the writings of others.

I was prompted to write this piece by a particularly scathing review of my second book, Moussaka to My Ears, which has appeared on Amazon a while back. See, I can't quite get my head around where exactly this person's coming from. I don't mind if my work doesn't do it for some readers. That's life after all. But I wonder why some choose to read travel writing at all, when they're going to come up with words like this person has. Not one to shy away from criticism generally, I'll illustrate. To quote, he/she wrote: "…The author managed to bore me senseless in a very short timespan with trips he had made to the computer shop to arguments with airport check in desks, Come on just because you live abroad it doesn't mean the general day to day crap suddenly becomes something of interest…"

Hmm. Do you think he/she perhaps didn't like it then? See, I'm a huge Bill Bryson fan and I don't even feel that I'm worthy to tie his bootlaces, but, but!!! - Bryson writes about precisely the kinds of things that this "reviewer" seems to take exception to. I think that we all have to realise that a travel writer is someone who writes about him or herself. A prerequisite to travel writing is the feeling that you think your audience will want to read about  all kinds of trivia. It's the only way to give a really complete picture. Just to make the point, in one of Bryson's books he manages to make me chuckle with an account of ordering a snack in an American diner. The waitress keeps coming and asking him if he's ready to order. Finally, after several such visits to his table, he tells her: "Look, give me some time here. I'm not used to these menus, as I've only just got out of prison."

"Really?" The waitress asks, "What were you in for?" To which BB replies, "I murdered a waitress who hurried me."

Now is that day to day trivia or is that day to day trivia? But maybe Bryson's a lot better than me at the witty stuff, OK. Nevertheless, he's managed to get in a paragraph or two about ordering ham and eggs.

I know that my books will appeal primarily to those who either love Greece, or love travel writing as a genre. But I ask myself when I'm writing, why would I want to read someone else's experiences? The answer is simple. We read other people's experiences...
a) for the reason cited in the opening paragraph above,
b) because we want to learn about places we haven't yet been,
c) because we want to be reminded of somewhere we've been,
d) because we want to know about the trivia of daily life as it is experienced somewhere unfamiliar to us,
e) because the author's writing style entertains us while enabling us to do all of the above.

My erudite critic continues: "I admit I only managed to read a quarter of the way through the book but PLEASE what condescending pompous drivel!
So many observations were made looking from down his nose, how hard it must of been to step over the back packer in his scruffy t shirt at the airport, and how funny it sounds when a German attempts to speak English. Come on Please....pass the sick bucket."

The vast majority of feedback which I receive from those who have read my work suggests that I write in a "self-effacing manner," so quite how I could at the same time be "looking down from my nose" is a mystery to me. As stated above, you have to blow your own trumpet a little bit simply to attempt travel writing, because you hope that others out there will enjoy reading about your experiences. Once again, Bill Bryson's work is full of just such trivia as stepping over backpackers at airports, yet I avidly read anything that he's written that I can get my hands on.

There we are. Mustn't let it get to me. I suppose too that there must be at least one person out there who thinks they'd like the sick bucket passed when reading Bill Bryson. I mean, the law of averages and all that eh?

Friday, 2 November 2012

Kalymnos Trip 2

Some decades ago, it was not at all unusual to go out to a regular taverna for an evening and find a bit of dance action. Very often during the seventies and eighties, we'd be on some island somewhere and there'd be more than one taverna nearby where, at least a few times a week, they'd have a bouzouki player sitting in a corner, sometimes with accompaniment, sometimes on his own. He'd be playing all evening and occasionally the staff would spontaneously break out into a Sirtaki or something whilst on their way back to the kitchen from serving a table or three. They'd throw their white towel over their shoulder and pretty soon have the entire place clapping as they ducked and dived to the audience's delight. Cameras would flash and, in fairly short order, my wife would  be up there with him, or her.

The beauty of this situation was that if you were married to someone who had Greek dancing in their blood and had been doing it since she was a wee child, you didn't have to put up with a fortnight of investigation, looking for a venue where your better half could get her fix for the year. How often in more recent years did we spend holidays forever asking where there might be a bit of a Greek Night, not the kind laid on for a huge herd of tourists, but the kind referred to above, where the staff at a taverna would simply put on an impromptu show whenever the fancy took them. These days, sadly, it's become very rare indeed. I was just talking to my friend Ray in Gennadi this morning, who works at a hotel in Pefkos, and he was making the same point. He told me that all season long his guests would be asking where they could see a bit of Greek culture. Most of the bars and restaurants there are playing modern American or British music these days. Some of Ray's guests even said that, although they liked Pefkos, it could almost be anywhere in Europe, since there wasn't enough "essential Greece" there any more. If anyone who runs a taverna or bar in Pefkos reads this, here's a suggestion that I reckon would work wonders for your business. Bite the bullet and pay a bouzouki player a few Euros a night and clear a modest area among your tables. Now and again just dance. Don't plan anything, just do it when the mood takes you. You'll be amazed at how quickly word will get around and people will be flocking to "that taverna where the staff dance when the mood takes them."

I speak from long years of experience. Tavernas where this kind of thing goes on would make a killing nowadays simply because it's getting so rare. It needn't even be a live musician. Still the best taverna I ever visited for this kind of thing was Taverna Lucas almost 40 years ago on Poros Island (see the new "Ideas" page). George Lucas would simply wheel an old Wurlitzer jukebox out on an extended cable to the taverna's front door (there's a story about this in Feta Compli!) and dance to a scratchy old 45 on the "Minos" label.

So, why am I going off on this one? Well, it's funny how things work out sometimes. There we were, on our first evening in Pothia, "capital" of Kalymnos, and we were just trotting down the several flights of stairs from our room to the harbourside below at around 9.00pm. Next-door-but-one to our right there was a nice traditional fish taverna with the required blue check tablecloths, but we wanted a bit of a walk before deciding where to eat. Before leaving reception, we'd asked our host, Kyrio Kariotis, where we could get a good meal and he'd mentioned the name of a taverna some ten minutes walk to our left as we left the building. So, we'd eventually eaten at the taverna that he'd recommended and, although it had been OK, we'd not found as much home cooking on the starter menu as we'd have liked. Never mind, it had been a nice meal and now we were strolling back along the harbour front late on the evening of Wednesday October 17th, looking at all the lights and thinking how wonderful it was that we only needed t-shirts at this time of the evening as it approached midnight.

My wife raised the subject of whether we'd find anywhere where she might be able to dance and I'd been quick to tell her not to get her hopes up and be too disappointed. 

As we drew nearer to our hotel, however, there came drifting on the evening breeze the definite sound of some live bouzouki music. The closer we came to our destination, the louder grew the music. We eventually arrived at the bar outside the hotel to see that the taverna just two doors to the right of the hotel (as you exited the front door) did indeed have something going on. There was a four-piece band playing, consisting of keyboards, fiddle, mini-bouzouki and regular bouzouki and they were in full swing. What a result!!

Having thrown ourselves into a couple of chairs outside the bar, where we were afforded a good view of the action, we ordered a couple of drinks and within seconds my wife had both arms waving this way and that in the air as she chair-danced to the tzifteteli that the band were riproaring through. It didn't take long for one of the men at the taverna to look around and spot her and pretty soon (though she didn't need much persuasion) she was up and among the other dancers...

That's my better half, in the black dress. Once she gets up, I'm alone for ages...

Episode 3 to follow.