Saturday, 28 July 2012

The Stars Come Out

Robert de Niro and John Travolta are now officially good guys in my book. The pair of them have just holidayed in Greece and have done their bit to show the rest of the world that everything's fine for the visitor to this most special country. John Travolta is quoted as saying (and indeed I watched him say it on Greek TV news last night): "I feel safe. Everywhere we’ve gone is safe, and absolutely cool and relaxed. Everybody is happy and there are no problems. Sometimes the news makes thing look worse than they are, but this has been like a dream.”

His companion, the distinguished Mr. de Niro, added: “We decided to come to Greece and I’m so glad we did. It’s great, terrific. I will come back and I will see every island in Greece in the next few years. I hope I live 50 years, but I doubt it.”

Guys, it's unlikely that you'll ever read this, but I agree with you. Here I am sitting at Maria's Taverna on the quayside on the beautiful and unspoilt island of Halki and I'm letting the place work its magic on me. Looking up, I see the huge tree under which Maria's tables are laid out in haphazard fashion. Hanging among the tree's foliage is a piece of driftwood, painted blue (of course) and upon it is spelt in Greek "Ταβερνα Μαρια", the lettering of which is fashioned out of rope which is painted yellow. The taverna nextdoor is equally as beguiling and has the sign "Ταβερνα Βαλαντης" hanging over its door. The prioprietor is a smiling man whose wife gave birth to a new baby just last season, yet there she is too, serving at the tables along with her man.

Maria's Taverna tables are resplendent in their blue and white check tablecloths and wooden slatted chairs, also painted in the Greek blue to harmonise with the sign above. As is the case all over the country, the taverna next door is easily differentiated from Maria's by the fact that, although in very close proximity, their tables and chairs are dressed in brown check. Maria herself approaches me carrying the ubiquitous paper table cloth, which she deftly lays one-handedly across my table and tucks under the elastic string which stretches around the table just below its top. She does this one-handedly because the other is now holding the condiment set of oil & vinegar bottles, accompanied by some toothpicks and paper napkins, plus salt and pepper pots, which she replaces on the table once the paper tablecloth is safely battened down.

Gazing out across the sun-warmed stone paving to the edge of the quay a few metres away, where a delightful collection of brightly-coloured fishing boats rises and falls in sync, as if all following their conductor like the musicians in an orchestra as the music ebbs and flows, I sense that feeling of well-being that only a Greek island's seafront can give one. Parked at the edge of the quay today is a white van, the roof of which is shaded by a substantial pile of plastic patio chairs, all of which are stacked on the vehicle's roof rack in readiness to be claimed by some new owner as the van's driver and his wife carry a few samples away to show the taverna and bar owners their wares. These almost Asian-looking people are possibly descendents of the Pontoi [Pontou, Pontus], Greeks who at one time inhabited the Black Sea coast of Turkey, but were re-located to Northern Greece during the Greco-Turkish population exchange of the 1920's. 

Their two small children play fractiously and one of them, a tiny little doll-like dark-skinned girl with a full head of black curls, decides that her older sibling has pushed her a little too far and bursts into a tantrum-like wail. Seeing that she's elicited no response from mum and dad, she soon shuts up and returns to the business of rearranging the child-sized chairs and stools stacked on the ground behind the van in a manner to her liking. She seems oblivious to the merciless sun which is pounding down onto her.

A battered pick-up descends from the village interior and draws to a halt just a few metres away from me. It has a rather inventive sunshade of canvas stretched over what looks like a stainless steel tubular framework a metre or so above its flat bed, in a manner which resembles the sun-shades which some smaller boats sport. Under this cover are arranged the bodies of a few young people, along with their rucksacks and canvas bags. The driver leaps out and goes around to the tailgate, which he releases, thus allowing his cargo of young people to tumble out. Arranging themselves in readiness to repair to the nearest bar, I note that the boys have that tousled wavy hair that so seems to harmonise with their three-quarter length shorts, which sport the logos of some surfing company or other, whilst the girls are decked out in tanktops which show so much of their bikini tops or bras that, were this a couple of decades ago it would have been seen as far too daring. All that underwear on display. Tch, tch. Their long bronzed legs give away the fact the they are of that age where they can be daring and as yet have no concept of the fact that a couple of decades down the line they'll be thinking "do my veins show?" or something. The driver slams the tailgate closed and it seems evident to me that he's got a pretty lucrative number going here, ferrying guests to remote parts of the island and back again in a probably unofficial capacity. Can't fault his industriousness though, I suppose.

From a doorway in the small "supermarket" beside Maria's taverna floats the incongruous sound of an electronic desk telephone and it brings me out of my reverie and back to Maria, who's asking me what I'd like to eat for lunch. After ordering some kalamari, a tomato salad and a Fix, I return to my observings and Maria to her kitchen to report my order to her husband, who prepares the food.

To my right, beside the building which houses, on the ground floor, the largest cafe on the quayside and above it the island's Post Office, there's a small periptero. As you'll know if you've read the piece at the other end of that link, those who can run a periptero must be victims of war, disabled people or families with many children. It's a kind of state provision for the disadvantaged which affords them the dignity of working for their living. I rather like the system. 

The periptero on Halki's front is run by a short and strangely shaped man whose legs look too long for his truncated body, which has a prominent hunchback on its torso. He's doing OK though and all the villagers know him and patronise his little business. As I watch him he exits the tiny, shady interior of the booth carrying a white cloth and comes around to the front to wipe the ice cream fridge around its top to reduce the condensation and clean up any smears. While he's doing this, the proprietor of the cafe next door turns up carrying a plate of Halki pasta, evidently lunch for our periptero man. I don't doubt that he provides this out of kindness. They may be related too, it's a distinct probability on such a small island. Whilst the periptero man finishes his wiping, the cafe man enters the booth and serves a couple of German girls on his behalf. These are a couple of our TUI party of guests from Rhodes today, who want some small packet or other; probably either cigarettes or chewing gum by the look of it. I hope it's the latter as it always makes me shudder to see a young person shove a smouldering tobacco stick into their mouth. Not my business though, that's the bottom line.

Chewing on Maria's delicious kalamari and knocking back a gulp of Fix beer, I watch as various islanders trot by whilst going about their business and tourists stroll at a somewhat slower pace, skin ever reddening as they snap away with their cameras at the stunningly picturesque environs of Halki harbour.

The news reports mentioned that both John Travolta and Robert de Niro came here with their families. Of late I learned that among other celebs that have a love affair with Greece are Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, George Clooney and many others. If you're a Grecophile you're in very illustrious company.


  1. I have only one comment, or rather question. Why am I here?
    Lovely post, the periptero seems so much more dignified than the Big Issue pitch.............definitely the way forward.

    1. Which puts me mind of an old joke. What did the slug say to the snail? ..."BIG ISSUE?!"

      Though my favourite is, "how do you keep an idiot in suspense?

      ...I'll tell you tomorrow."