Sunday, 28 April 2013

Ice Cream on the Lawn

Hi folks, I'm back. Sorry about the long-ish gap, but I'm of the opinion that it's best not to write unless one has something half-decent or interesting to write about. Otherwise it's not going to be much cop when all said and done. That of course, and the fact that I was - as they'd say oop north - "raht poorly" for a few days last week too.

Sounds a bit quintessentially British doesn't it, "Ice cream on the lawn"? I mean of course, that we ate ice cream whilst sitting on a lawn, not that the ice cream was, ...oh well, you're already there aren't you.

Having arrived home from the UK late on Saturday evening of the 20th, after - when all's said and done - a very smooth journey home, thanks to my mum's nextdoor neighbour Roger, First Great Western Trains and Easyjet, we went straight to bed, after a nice cup of Earl Grey of course. As I mentioned on the "News and Stuff" page, the day we travelled home was also our wedding anniversary, so we didn't exactly celebrate in style. So, executive decision, Sunday morning we'd unpack everything and then scoot off somewhere for lunch, since it was a wonderfully clear Rhodean day without a cloud and considerably warmer than the temperatures we'd been experiencing for the preceding few weeks.

Where to go was the question. Somewhere we'd been before or somewhere different? The better half came up with a good idea: why not go to a taverna which we'd often heard good things about and yet never eaten at ourselves? We had in fact turned up at Maria's, one of the two tavernas within close proximity of eachother on the road down to Tsambika Beach from the main Rhodo-Lindos road not far south of Kolymbia, but on two previous occasions found it closed. Our fault of course, because we'd been trying to find somewhere to eat on a weekday in the middle of winter. This time, however, it was a Sunday, the day when loads of Greeks go out to lunch, plus the season had cautiously begun and the weather was perfect. We could be pretty sure that we'd find Maria's open for business. We were right.

Quite a few friends and acquaintances have told us they've found Maria's to be very good and so it was long overdue for a visit. As you drive down the tree-lined leafy lane, you come upon the taverna as you round a gentle bend and it's on your left-hand side. Determined not lose out on the action, as you turn into the parking area you see a huge sign on the other side of the road advertising Taverna Edem (which is the Greek version of Eden by the way. Not sure whether all the staff serve you naked, or whether birthday suits are required of the guests there though. Probably just an attempt to make one expect rather beautiful surroundings, marginally less interesting though, eh?) If you check out the link there, you find that Edem also gets some very good reviews. But on this occasion, we'd decided that Maria's it would be.

There is a rather large indoor area to the establishment, but, as would be expected, it was entirely devoid of diners as we walked through it at around 3.00pm. Everyone was out on the lawn, a very pleasant grassy area, even sporting a few kiddy things like an ancient roundabout and a few swings. Apart from one table, which was occupied by a British couple who were just paying up in preparation for their departure, the entire clientele were Greeks, predominantly families. All the tables had some kind of shade or part-shade, ranging from four-legged canopies, through parasols to olive trees. We were immediately greeted by a large friendly man (evidently Maria's son) of probably around my age (young, of course!) who asked us where we'd like to sit and escorted us to a table...

The view from our first table, though before the food arrived we'd moved to the one just in front of us there under the olive tree. Times like that remind one that one has a half-Greek wife. It's in the blood you see.
 We ordered a couple of drinks and set about drinking in the environment as well as perusing the extensive menu. I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but in case you haven't tried it, always ask what else they have on. Very often in traditional tavernas there'll be a couple of home-cooked dishes available that aren't always listed in the menu. The environs were extremely pleasant and the atmosphere was complemented by the sound of running water from the few cascades they'd built along the perimeter wall and fence beside the road. All in all, we began to expect good things.

After having chosen some revithokefte'des (chick pea rissoles, our favourite) a nice green salad of lettuce, rocket and chopped red onions (why does anyone ever eat white ones?) and some freshly cut fried potatoes, my wife asked if they had gi'gantes (those huge oven cooked beans in lots of sauce). "No, sorry," replied the friendly man with the notepad, "but we do have fasola'kia, they are very similar, only smaller. Made to our own recipe and also baked in the oven." Fasola'kia it was then. I was very content with my Fix and so we sat back and awaited the arrival of our lunch...

I have to say, right here, that the portion of chickpea rissoles was not only the largest we'd ever been served, but the rissoles themselves were also bigger than any we'd been given at any taverna ever. Their taste also added to the experience and we both agreed that they were simply TDF. Y-Maria said that she was going to ask for a doggy-bag because she was certainly not going to leave any on the plate. As it turned out, we ate them all anyway. Well, to be accurate about it, I ate most of them. Well, I didn't want her to have to go to all that bother of carrying them home. I'm all heart, you ought to know me by now.

The bread too was delicious. It was authentic, home-baked horiatiko, that round flattish loaf, the "flesh" of which is slightly yellow. More than half a loaf arrived and that was also something which the better half decided wasn't going back to the kitchen.

When we'd finished we were well and truly stuffed and, as we sat back and sipped at our glasses of water and allowed it all to settle in our stomachs we enjoyed listening to snippets of all the conversations across the lawn. The fact the all the clientele were now Greeks speaks volumes wouldn't you say? Anyway, just as we were thinking rather reluctantly about asking for a bill, Maria herself came to clear the tables and so we were afforded the opportunity to thank her for her excellent cuisine. We also made the promise that we'd be returning some time soon. After she'd accepted our words graciously and moved on to clear another table, we noticed the bloke who'd served us exiting the building across the lawn and walking out in our general direction carrying two ice cream cones. One was evidently strawberry and vanilla and the other quite possibly toffee or some such. Now, as there were quite a few toddlers running riot (and rings around their seniors), we naturally expected that he'd pass these cones to a couple of them. Uh, uh. Arriving at our table he asked Y-Maria which she'd prefer and then gave them both to us. Nice dessert and on the house too.

Not only this, but when we asked for the bill and expressed our desire to take some bread home, he retreated inside, only to return minutes later with a whole, still-warm loaf in a plastic bag, which he also presented to us compliments of the house...

Our whole lunch added up to just over €20, which our host rounded down to 20 anyway, although we gave him extra - he deserved it.
When we visited our friend Brenda in Pilona a couple of days later, we weren't all together surprised when she told us that she'd never visited Maria's without coming away with a freebie of some sort. Now that's how to assure repeat business. Especially when the food's exquisite too.

It was quite strange at moments during this meal. To be seated at a table on a lawn eating ice cream made us feel almost UK pub/café garden-ish. Except for the fact that the light was of that wonderful clarity that you never seem to get in Britain, of course!

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Open For Business

With the summer fast coming upon us it's the time of year when many will be thinking, "Shall we risk Greece this year, or are the problems there of such gravity that they'll affect our chances of having a great holiday?"

Of course, the austerity measures here are never far from our thoughts, as is the abiding thought that still many in Northern Europe are believing the hype that the media's been putting out. But as my wife and I are "on the ground" here, as it were, here's what's happening all over Greece, in every small corner of this sun-blessed country.

Fresh licks of paint are being applied to signs, pergolas and railings, and varnish to slightly aging wooden and cane café chairs, the cushions for which have been extracted from their plastic protective covers in which they've passed the winter months, and have been dry-cleaned or plumped up ready to receive the derrières of innumerable sunseekers. Taverna tables are already out on terraces and menus prepared for placing before hungry diners.

We hear that the numbers of British holidaymakers travelling to Greece look as though they're going to be up on last year, something which, should it materialise, would be very encouraging for everyone here.

Talking to quite a few of the guests on my excursions last year I was re-educated too about how much it costs to eat out in Greece when compared to other European countries. In response to my lament about how decades ago you could dine in a traditional taverna in Greece for pennies, I was told by not a few people, with the benefit of also having recently visited Spain, including the Canaries, the South of France and Italy that Greece in fact compares rather favourably with those other countries. I gained the impression that, by and large, it's probably around 20-40% more expensive in the restaurants of those countries than in Greece. This was especially enlightening and encouraging to me because Rhodes isn't the cheapest island within Greece, yet I was made vividly aware that I was a bit behind the times.

True, nowhere is as cheap in real terms as it was in the eighties and nineties; but a couple, using a little savvy perhaps, can still eat out like kings and queens in Rhodes for €20-30, including drinks. Take my tip, never go for the "starter, main course, dessert" thing. That's sooo British! No, eat like the locals, simply order a few plates of whatever takes your fancy from both the starter and main course menus, then all pitch in from the dishes which are placed in the middle of the table. This is how the Greeks always eat, both out and when at home.

Another aspect of coming to Greece that ought to rank highly on the list of requirements for a prospective trouble-free holiday is the crime rate. I read in a UK paper just the other day about a group of British tourists who were engaged in an excursion from a cruise ship on a Caribbean island. Their coach was ambushed by a group of armed men who proceeded to rob the visitors of their valuables. OK, so no one was actually harmed, but how would you have been feeling at being ordered off the bus by a group of blokes wielding automatic rifles? On your hols too? I would never be daft enough to assert that there is no crime on Rhodes, or indeed any of the Greek islands, but it is a fact that the level is very low. For starters, even though you'd be wise to lock your hire car when leaving it anywhere, the chances of it being tampered with or anything stolen from it are nevertheless slim. It's still a fact that most locals never do lock their cars and if you walk around a village, even the outskirts of Rhodes town, you'll see a liberal sprinkling of front door keys protruding from the locks, with not a soul about. Crimes against the person are mercifully still a very rare occurrence on a Greek island too, which is why it's a joy to wander around Old Rhodes Town late in the evening. If a lone woman were to be approached by a couple of men in such a situation, they'd be more likely to ask her if she needed help finding her way than to assault and rob her. OK, so they may try and buy her a drink, since the Greeks do rather fancy themselves as Europe's greatest lovers…

Having read and watched the media during my recent visit to the UK, I have to say too that the overall impression I'm now getting is that people are at last being encouraged to disregard the economic problems when selecting Greece as a holiday destination, since in the "value for money" stakes my adopted country is actually doing pretty well.

It's official, Greece is open for business and you'll get your money's worth if you choose to spend your vacation here.

Something I've written before also bears repeating - the sun is not in crisis.

(I'll be soon out and about again with the trusty camera by the way. So more photos will follow in upcoming posts quite soon now)

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Bird Poo and a Butcher's Block

Health and safety is a big issue in the UK these days, but, of course, no one living there needs telling about that. Whilst there are some aspects of this that are quite evidently for the benefit of all, there are others which are just downright irritating. Mind you, if you were to walk into a particular local butcher's shop in the south of Rhodes you'd probably find yourself wishing that some aspects of the EU rules on the subject were adhered to just a tad more diligently.

The better half and I are vegetarians, a fact which I don't want to bang on about yet again here, each to his own after all, but I'm just alluding to that so you'll understand that it's a couple of friends of ours on Rhodes who gave us this tale. The butcher's shop in question is very popular and well-known for the fact that the owner, whom we shall call Lefteri, sells happy meat.

Happy meat? Well, that's how I'd best describe the fact that what you'll find in his cool cabinets are the remains of animals that had lived rather cushy lives when compared to many other poor unfortunate creatures that end up on someone's dinner plate. Lefteris keeps his own pigs, for example. These porcines are born in his own pen, which is spacious and well-blessed with shelter from the sun and rain. It contains a large watering hole, which he regularly tops up by hose during the long hot summer days from an illicit pipe connected somewhere in the undergrowth to the water main. Well, what you don't know won't hurt you, eh? That's the philosophy of your average local around these parts anyway. Thus his porkers can wallow in nice cooling mud whatever the summer weather may throw at them.

All the meat on sale in Lefteri's establishment is "organic", that is, not fed up on antibiotics, not fed some strange bulk-building concoction, not described as one thing when it is in fact another, and certainly not kept in inhumane conditions. Whether killing them at some point could be described as humane, well, let's not go there. Suffice it to say that, whilst they are still alive, they live the life of Riley.

So then, to purchase your meat from Lefteri is to enjoy the prospect of eating wholesome, free-range flesh. But, and here's the bit our neighbours had us in stitches over, our friend Lefteris has no qualms about serving his customers with a ciggie hanging out of one corner of his mouth. And that's not all…

Lefteris keeps his wooden chopping block at one end of his counter, quite near the wall in fact. In walked our friends one day recently to order a little fresh chicken, which he selected from his display in response to their vigorous hand-pointing movements from the other side of the glass. He then threw it on to the block and set about removing the bones in his usual helpful manner.

Now, that may all sound OK health and safety-wise. But, remember, not only was the ciggie wafting feathery ash downward as he worked but, also our friends' attention as they watched was drawn by the shrill singing coming from two canaries. Where were these small feathery chaps situated? They were living in a cage attached to the wall just a couple of feet above the aforementioned chopping block. It was only after having spotted the canaries that our hapless customers remembered that, prior to throwing the chicken flesh on to the block before setting about it with his boning knife, he'd used the back of his hand to wipe away a layer of small particles and debris which had been occupying the block up until seconds before. These "bits" related our friends, had borne a not unfamiliar resemblance to canary droppings and feathery thingies.

Our friends, who decided (brave of them) not to say anything, paid for their pieces of chicken, which the oblivious smiling, genial butcher had now placed into a thin plastic bag and spun it closed with his hands, and walked out with it. Later they made the decision to eat the chicken, since they concluded that dear Lefteris had been working and serving his customers in this self-same way from time immemorial and, to date, no one had (knowingly) died from anything which could be directly correlated to the hygiene methods employed at his store.

Anyway, there was always the chance that the free-range, organic nature of the meat would in some way offset the potentially negative aspects of it having been prepared in a mist of cigarette ash and on a bed of swept canary droppings.

Last time we ran into these two customers of Lefteri, they looked OK anyway.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Here and There

You know you're in the West Country [UK] when you can browse the magazine shelf at the local filling [gas] station and study titles like Practical Tractor, Tractor Monthly, My Tractor, or perhaps Truly Tantalising Tractor Tales, even Tractor Attractor (all right, so I may have made up a couple of those), and all the aforementioned carry full-colour photographs on their covers of Massey Fergusons or John Deeres enough to have a rustics mouth salivating in seconds.

I was waiting for the bloke to deal with the paperwork for my hire car. He was still on the blower. A few years ago I made the cardinal error of booking a hire car over the internet before leaving Greece with an apparently multi-national and therefore one would have thought reputable company, only to find having taken a half-hour bus ride into Bath, followed by a walk of about the same time to arrive it the company's office and be told by the butter-wouldn't-melt girl behind the desk that I'd of course be wanting the extra £85 worth of insurance cover wouldn't I. When I queried this and pointed out that I'd brought with me a print-out of the e-mail of the booking from the company, which strangely hadn't mentioned any extra charges on top of the quoted price, she just replied with "Well, I only work here, sir. But if you do have an accident and you haven't taken out the extra cover, it'll be a £500 excess that you'll be liable for, so I'd strongly recommend that you take it."

Having spent the ensuing couple of weeks driving around in a car from a company for which I was developing an ever deeper resentment, I resolved then and there to find a local company, near to my mother's home, in future. How glad I am that I did. Now, each time we're planning to arrive in the UK to stay a few weeks with mum, I just call them a week in advance, we agree the price and I can walk to the garage to collect the car, where I pay the exact price quoted for a very acceptable car thank you very much. I even get to browse a magazine rack full of tractor magazines whilst I wait.

What's nice about being in a village like Chilcompton, too, is that if I strike up a conversation with the bloke who's serving me, I'm almost certain to find out that he knows someone who I used to. "That garage along the road, used to be Crockett's didn't it?" I began.

"Yep." Came the reply, "You knew old Bill Crockett then?"

"Used to work for him, not long after I left school. I worked out at Emborough, where there was a bloke called "Bish" who used to clean the cars and man the pumps, back in the good old days when you used to get served when buying petrol."

"I knew old Bish," replied Martin, the man who was running my Debit Card through the machine, "He only recently died. Lived just down the road from here. Drink finally got the better of him."

Having enjoyed a companionable moment, having just discovered a mutual acquaintance, I told him my favourite "Bish" story from three or four decades ago. We used to retire to the nearby Old Down pub at lunchtimes, the salesmen and he, where Bish would try and chat up women. If they ever asked what he did for a living, he'd always reply, very a la Del Trotter: "I'm in petroleum, on the retail side."

Why am I rambling on about all this? Well, usually at this time of the year whilst visiting my mother in the West Country, it's a handy time to reflect on the various differences between our lives out in Rhodes and the life we may have still been experiencing were we still living here in the UK. I mean, I've written before about how I'm convinced that shop assistants think I must have escaped from somewhere when I can't understand the money. I mean, here's this bloke who's obviously a local, and he gives up in desperation while buying a paper and thrusts an open palm across the counter and asks the assistant to take the correct amount of change. Boy do I get some funny looks. Having pulled up at some petrol pumps this morning I waited for ages wondering why it was taking me so long to get served. Eventually I got out of the car and looked around for someone, but it was the garage forecourt equivalent of the Maria Celeste. The sun (yes, folks, it was sunny!!) was reflecting on the glass of the garage store and so I couldn't see any bodies within.

After probably five minutes or so it finally dawned on me that here in the UK you're expected to get your hands all smelly and serve yourself. Having grown so used to the most civilized practice which still prevails on Rhodes of the attendant opening your filler cap, filling your car and collecting your cash whilst all you have to do is lower your window, I'd quite forgotten the etiquette in Britain.

That's a plus for Greece. A bit of a minus, though, has to be the situation when you have to visit the local doctor's surgery. Not long after moving out to Rhodes someone told us, "In Greece they're all totally preoccupied with 'specialists'". GPs are nervous about treating virtually everything and if you drop by the local practice, of which there are many dotted about the villages, [much like the situation in the UK], more than likely the Doc will refer you to the hospital."

Now, this isn't so bad if the hospital's just along the road. But if you live down toward Gennadi on Rhodes, you're looking at at least an hour in the car. It's either that or the GP will write you a prescription for three or four different and very expensive drugs that ought to ensure that he [allegedly] gets his free golfing weekend in Italy from the commission he'll get at the end of that financial year. My wife had a minor feeling of discomfort under her ribs a while back. She went to the Doctor's surgery in Gennadi and came home with three prescriptions, none of which was for the complaint that she'd gone to see him about!! One was even an inhaler!!!

The other potential scenario, as referred to above, was brought back to mind when our close neighbour, Jane (of Mac and Jane fame in a couple of the books) e-mailed us a few days ago to tell us how she'd recently arrived back on Rhodes after a frigid few weeks in the brass-monkey riddled UK still nursing a pretty raw chest. After a few days at home in Kiotari with it not seeming to shift, she took herself off to the local doctor, who promptly referred her to the hospital to see a specialist. In the UK it's almost a certainty that the local doc would have prescribed a dose of antibiotics and that would have sorted it out. But here, off she was sent all the way to "the specialist" in the hospital in town, where she was examined, told she had a chest infection, and sent home with the recommendation that she return for another appointment in a few days time, another round trip of more than 100k!!

Something I must add here, on a totally different subject. This year we chose to use the train to travel down from Gatport Airwick to Bath, changing at Reading. Much to our surprise and delight, the trains were virtually on time, every member of staff whom I approached for directions at the stations was courtesy and friendliness personified, and we arrived at my mother's door a few hours quicker than we would have done had we taken the National Express coach, which up until now we'd sworn by. This year their fares had taken such a hike that we ended up on the train, but all in all, a huge tick in the credit column for the staff at Gatwick and Reading stations.

Finally, since we'd had some time to kill at Reading I wanted to give the "heads up" to the small and very friendly "Tutti Frutti" coffee bar on the concourse there, where we enjoyed a couple of truly wicked Mochas and choccy fudge, cum carrot cake or something like that. The cafe is two doors from Costa Coffee, where everyone seems to want to sit. 

Pic courtesy:
We ended up in Tutti Frutti (hidden by Costa Coffee above), which, when we sat down, was empty of customers, and were very glad we did. The young man and lady serving there were exceptionally friendly and helpful and, when we paid up and left, we checked the prices at the famous neighbour, to find that we'd saved ourselves a tidy sum too.

Anyway, I'll sign off now. Got a couple of Tractor magazines to peruse through.