Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Sounding Off. An Essay.

This contents of this post (with perhaps some changes) will actually appear as chapter 4 in the upcoming new book "A Jay in the Jacaranda Tree", which is a memoir of over a decade of living on Rhodes (we moved here from the UK in 2005). I thought I'd shove some excerpts from the book on the blog from time to time.

Right now I'm up to a little over 10,000 words in writing the book. This is the only chapter that's perhaps not so centred around day-to-day living, just in case it puts you off!
Anyway, here goes...

4. Politics

Let me preface this piece by explaining my stance on this subject. Firstly, I'm a rather apolitical animal. You may or may not agree with me, but then, isn't that what freedom of expression's all about?

Example: why is it that some so-called democratic countries actually punish those who don't vote with fines or even prison sentences? That's not democracy in my book, it's totalitarianism. If someone exercises their right (which it should be in a true democracy) not to vote then that is democracy in action.

I have a CD by Steve Earle, the American musician, and on the sleeve notes it says “If you don't vote – don't beef”. I think he sums it up rather succinctly there. If someone chooses not to vote then that very course of action is a “vote” for non-involvement. It's a right that is implied by the very notion of democracy. The key is, those who don't vote have no right to beef. I accept that. If you're going to gripe about the government or its policies and decisions, then you have to have voted. Otherwise you have forfeited the right to be involved in any debate. But to make that decision has to be a fundamental right in a free society.

So, in this chapter I'm coming at it as a bemused observer, a political layman if you like, which is probably what most ex-pat Brits who come here are, at least at the outset.

When we arrived in Greece in summer 2005 everything seemed rosy in the garden. Kostas Karamanlis and his New Democracy party were in power and most people had no idea what was brewing behind the scenes. No doubt there were folk in the know, like the bloke who became Finance Minister under the first ever Syriza government which took power in January of 2015, Yanis Varifocals, sorry Varoufakis, but most people had no inkling of what was to come.

See, the first thing I notice that's wrong with the system here is that there are simply too many parties. There are so many that it's an incredibly difficult task for any individual party to win an overall majority in an election. In fact, something that many are unaware of is that Syriza, who are in power under Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras while I write this, is in fact not a party at all, but rather a coalition of at least six parties. Even if you count Syriza as one party (which as you've just seen - it isn't) these are the current political parties existing and campaigning every time there's an election in Greece:

New Democracy
Golden Dawn
Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK)
Communist Party of Greece
The River (not so far as I am aware, a tribute to the great Bruce Springsteen album)
Independent Greeks (ANEL)
Union of Centrists (EK)
Popular Unity
Ecologist Greens
Democratic Left
Christian Democratic Party of the Overthrow (XRIKA)
Reformers for Democracy and Development
Course of Freedom
Society First
Popular Unions of Bipartisan Social Groups
Popular Orthodox Rally
Movement of Democratic Socialists
More souvlaki for the downtrodden (OK, I made that one up)... about twenty more (true!).

Get the picture? In the USA there are two parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. In the UK, granted, there are a few more, but by and large it's still a three or four horse race. Even then, the UK has recently seen a coalition government go virtually the full term when the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats were uneasy bedfellows from 2010 until 2015, the first coalition government in the UK since the Second World War.

Looking at the picture here in Greece one can see from the outset how unstable the system is. Small wonder that election follows election as no party finds it easy to win a clear majority. Of course the same applies here as in virtually every other democratic country on the planet too, which is: once a party wins the general election there's the short honeymoon period when their supporters shout about how the world's now going to be an infinitely better place. A few months then pass and it becomes clear that no miracles are going to be worked and the disillusionment sets in. Before long there are calls for another general election, people want 'change' and off we go again. Animal Farm.

Never has the expression 'talk is cheap' been more true than during election campaigns. 

Of course Mr. Karamanlis, on realising that something was soon going to hit the fan, especially as his party had presided over the vast expenditure of cash the country didn't have that was the staging of the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004, called an election in 2009 in full awareness that he'd be defeated. That gave him the chance to get out of the kitchen owing to the intense heart that was building day on day. PASOK got in under the new leader George Papandreou and he very soon declared to the country the truth about the state of the Greek finances that his government had inherited.

There are various opinions about what happened then, including some scathing verdicts about George Papandreou. Frankly, as an unbiased observer, it seemed to me that he was one of that rare breed, an honest politician. He told his country how bad things were, declared that there would need to be some draconian measures taken to try and fix the problem and then went to the country again owing to all the cries of no confidence in him. These cries seemed to me to be a result of people not liking the truth when they heard it. I heard a speech that he gave when he'd not been in power for long. In it he said, in essence, “I'm going to do what's right for the country, no matter whether it's popular or not, no matter what it may mean for my position as Prime Minister, or indeed my political career. I'm going to do what needs to be done and it's going to hurt all of us.”

Result? In the ensuing election he was voted out. Then came a “government of national unity” that was anything but. Then Mr. Samaras, the new leader of the New Democracy party was asked to form a government, also a coalition, then came the Syriza era under Mr. Tsipras. Syriza was elected on a “no more austerity” ticket, which just about sums up all that's wrong with democracy. I'd liken the situation to a family. Let's face it, there are many similarities. A country needs to live alongside its neighbours and trade with them. It needs to earn its living in the world and 'cut the coat according to the cloth'. No cloth means no coat.

Put it this way, a set of parents give their son £10 per week pocket money. Then the father loses his job. Now with only one income coming in they can barely pay the mortgage and scarcely feed the three of them from week to week. Dad and mum say to their son, “Son, we can no longer give you £10 per week while the economic situation is as it is. You'll have to make do with £4 until we see more money coming into the house, whenever that may be.” The son says, “I'm not having this! I want my £10 and you'd better give it to me.” Where's that £10 going to come from? It's simply not there. Mr. Tsipras was elected on a similar wave of the public's refusal to accept the reality of the situation. The public don't want to see their income reduced. That's understandable of course. But if the country's budget is over-stretched, if the balance of payments is so seriously in the red, there isn't much any government can do about it.

Here is where I return to the “talk is cheap” analogy. It's so easy for a party to campaign with a raft of promises because these are mere words. The facts are that whatever Syriza promised, (we'll kick out the Troika, we'll stop reducing pensions, we'll do this and we'll do that...”) it was never going to be able to deliver, but the public elected them because the'd been told what they wanted to hear. Going back to Mr. Papandreou, he told them the truth (“Son, it'll have to be £4 from now on”) and the public didn't want to hear it.

Democracy is where millions of people, largely ignorant of the facts, make decisions based upon their own desire not to see their pocket money reduced. Of course one should have sympathy for the son in the illustration and for the public in cash-strapped Greece. The facts, however, are harsh and the reality clear – everyone in the country will have to suffer fiscally for many years, possible for some peoples' lifetimes, before the country is back on its feet, if it ever will be. If a child runs the family home then disaster is the sure and only result in the end.

I get asked all the time “how has the crisis affected you?” Lots of people also like to opine before even asking. That's why the numbers of people from northern Europe taking their summer holidays in Greece dropped once “austerity” kicked in. Vastly over-exaggerated stories about conditions here in Greece were circulated in the media in the UK, Germany, Poland, Scandinavia etc. - all the countries which form the backbone of the Greek tourism industry.

For instance, as a part time job I do a few excursions during the summer season. Without exception, every week for the past few years, especially soon after the news broke about how bad things were financially for Greece, I've found myself having the same conversation with guests from those countries referred to above. Usually my guests are die-hard Grecophiles who will come to Greece whatever happens because they love the country. They are usually sensible enough to see through all the hyped up lies in the media. Yet so many of them have said to me, “Our friends back home were horrified when we told them we were coming to Greece. They said things like 'You're going THERE? Is it SAFE? Surely there's no money in the Bank ATMs, no food in the hotels and tavernas, widespread begging on the streets, crime and violence everywhere.”

I'm not exaggerating. Repeat visitors have told me how, when they got home from the previous holiday here on Rhodes, their neighbours, workmates or family said things like “Aren't you glad to be back home. It must have been awful for you.”

OK, so it's a little different on the islands from the cities and the mainland, but all the same, my wife and I spent three days staying at a hotel slap bang in the centre of Athens in July 2014 and still we felt it a safer city to walk around at night than London. You know what a perip'tero is, its one of those kiosks that sells newspapers, drinks, confectionery and cigarettes and they're to be found along pavements all over Greece. We walked back from Monastira'ki to our hotel, which was situated on the street that leads from Omonia Square to Syntagma (you can't get much more downtown that that) after midnight and those kiosks were closed for the night. Most of them have wooden eaves around which are hung the current copies of newspapers and magazine, attached to a string with wooden clothes pegs. As we walked home in the streets the shutters on the two or three perip'tera that we passed were rolled down, but the papers and magazines had been left on those pegs for the night. With no wish to denigrate my home country (and hopefully avoid kneejerk comments from UK readers), I can't see anyone doing such a thing there. Those periodicals would have been trashed, stolen or possibly set alight.

On the islands the vast majority of tourists who have decided to come for their holidays will tell you that it was as enjoyable as ever. The sunshine is still the same, the cuisine is the same, the welcoming people are the same and the scenery too. For many people on holiday, if they didn't know there was a crisis they'd probably never have guessed.

As for us ex-pats living here, each must tell his or her own story. In our case the only appreciable effect that the financial crisis has had on us has been the cost of fuelling up the car. When we arrived in August 2005, petrol (OK... gasoline, guys) was about 85 cents per litre. That translated into around 60p in the UK, where it was selling for more like 90p. So in effect we were paying 60% of the UK price for our petrol. Today, in December 2016 we're probably paying 120% of what we'd be paying in the UK. Of course we have Greek friends who are on pensions who have seen their income cut by 40%. We have friends working in the tourism industry, especially those working in hotels, who have been made to wait for their wages for months at a time.

As for that last fact, I could be quite wrong but I see it as the greedy hotel owners using the financial crisis as an excuse. The hotels to this day are still doing a roaring trade and the cash is flowing in thick and fast. Too many lowly staff (room cleaners, bar staff, waiters and waitresses) have been paid perhaps for the first month or two of the season, say May and June, then been told that they can't be paid until the end of the season or even later. It's scandalous and puts these hardworking people under extreme financial duress. Many of these folk are Albanians or Bulgarians and live in rented accommodation. By the time the season ends they are several months behind with their rent and have been borrowing money to do their food shopping. They haven't been able to pay their electricity bills. Yet all the time they cheerfully serve the hotel guests as these laze around the pools and eat and drink to their heart's content in complete ignorance regarding what the staff who serve them are enduring.

At one hotel near us here in Kiotari, a couple of seasons ago an Albanian friend of ours organised a staff walk-out during September. None of the waged staff had received a bean since the end of June and they were desperate. In Rhodes town there is even reputed to be a union representing hotel workers, but for all the good it does it may as well be selling souvlaki. What did the hotel management do? They sacked all the strikers with immediate effect and hired new ones. There are that many people out there wiling to work in such conditions. In fact, our friend told us that he was owed a couple of thousand Euros when he was fired. He eventually got called into the hotel in November and told he'd have to accept €900 or nothing. That was the first actual income he'd received since the end of June. On top of that, each time he applied for a job for the following season he discovered that the hotel owners and management had been circulating his name to ensure that he didn't get hired. He has a wife and two children under ten by the way.

Eventually a restaurateur in Pefkos gave him a job, but not until he'd had to beg to be given the chance to prove what a good worker he was. Whilst my sister and her husband were out here staying with us we went out to eat there and saw for ourselves just how good our friend was at his job. He was the one smiling and laughing with the guests, while it was all the owner could do to acknowledge a “good evening” from his guests with a grunt.

Returning to politics then, as is par for the course, after 23 months in government Syriza is now being called a bunch of liars and Alexis Tsipras a betrayer. He got in on a wave of bravado. He was going to tell Europe what was what. Greece wasn't going to be bullied. Greece wasn't going to kow tow. After a visit or two to Brussels he and his finance minister at the time, Mr. Varifocals, sorry Varoufakis, soon got their reality check and discovered what life was like in the real world. The compromises that the PM agreed were too much for Yanis Varoufakis, who subsequently resigned. Give the man his due, he wanted to stick to his principles, something that most politicians find it simply impossible to do.

Where will Greece be in five years time, ten years time? The only thing I can say, in my humble, layman's opinion is this: Greece needs tourists, so please come.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Planning and Forethought

"You are coming, aren't you" said Irini.

"Coming where?" I asked in reply.

"Tonight. Our place. We're barbecuing and there's a crowd coming over."

Irini said this to me at around noon a few days ago. As is readily apparent from the reported conversation above, the invitation was for the very same evening. It well illustrates a cultural difference between us Brits and the Greeks. It pretty much goes without saying that whatever they organise, they'll be sure and let everyone know at the very last minute. It equally applies to weddings. In the fairly large circle of Greek friends amongst which we now move, if there's a wedding coming up we'll usually get a nice posh printed invitation handed to us no more that a fortnight before the wedding is due to take place. In our old lives back in the UK we'd know months in advance about a wedding but here, drop everything and hope you've nothing too important planned, or you won't make it to the big day.

I suppose it shouldn't be a big deal, but we (as in the better half and I) find it really hard to adjust to this particular trait of our Greek friends. We like plenty of warning. We like to know well in advance what we're doing. To most Greeks, this is simply unheard of. Of course, my beloved and I have different reasons for not liking things to be sprung upon us. 

In my case it's more to do with that comfy feeling of having planned a quiet evening at home with my feet up. In winter that may of course involve a couple of planned TV programmes and the log-burner flickering away reassuringly. Maybe a good book or the headphones and iPod humming along nicely while I splay out on the sofa, glass of wine situated within grasping distance on the coffee table. To be honest, although we absolutely love living up a mountainside, a kilometre of dirt track separating us from the main road, it can be a bit of an impediment to our social lives during the darker evenings of winter. That whole thing of having to get the car out and driving somewhere is dead difficult when you've got the subdued lighting going in the lounge, the flames from the fire are flickering alluringly and you don't have to worry about that extra glass of vino because you don't have to drive anywhere.

On the other hand, my wife has to consider for far longer than simply a few hours what she's going to wear to the occasion in question. It simply doesn't do to only have part of an afternoon to think about what kind of event we've been invited to and what sort of attire and footwear would be appropriate. 

Plus, a major factor this time of the year is how warm are we going to be? A surprisingly large number of people seem to be quite happy sitting in their own lounges while the temperature is so low you can see your breath - indoors. Me and the significant other are at one on this, having come home in the past with our legs feeling like iced lollies from the knees down and then found it impossible to get ourselves back up to operational temperature for the rest of the night, even with our feet resting on hot water bottles in the bed, we're loathe to accept an invitation when we suspect that the real intention is to use us as an experiment in cryogenics.

Have you noticed too, chaps, how difficult it is for a female to actually leave the building? We've set a time for departure - that is, of course, on those occasions when we actually do venture out during the winter evenings - of, lets say 8.00pm. This will invariably mean that at about ten to eight I'll be grabbing the keys from the hook on the wall and calling through the bedroom door that "I'm getting the car out." 

Coming back through the door will be the words, "Nearly ready!"

Oh dear. I'll go outside, reverse the car out from the car port, open the gates, drive the car out on to the lane, leave the engine ticking over while I get out, come back in through the gate and close it in case of hares, sheep, goats or the neighbours' dogs, then trot across the drive to the terrace, still seeing no sign of the front door even threatening to open, pop my head inside and shout, "We going then?"

"All right!" will come the reply. After a further minute or two with no appreciable change to the situation I'll have no option but to slip off my shoes again, go inside and see what the situation is. Opening the bedroom door I'll see the light of my life sitting in front of her dressing table mirror, perhaps brushing her hair, while from the waist down she's still only in a slip or maybe underwear and tights.

"Umm," I'll begin, very conscious of the need to try and keep things on a conciliatory level, "I thought you said you were nearly ready. We did say eight and it's two minutes to."

As if I hadn't said anything I'll then be asked my opinion about skirt or trousers, whether it ought to be the brown belt or the black one, which shoes look best and will I please just apply a little hairpsray to the back of the hair. Then the top will come off and she'll decide that it will be a dress after all, but that may necessitate a change of bangle around the neck and so on.

Even when she's finally dressed and has a handbag over one arm, there will be the need to take a good look around the bedroom, as if she's never seen it before. 

"Do I need a cardigan or jacket?" She'll ask. About now I'm internally hopping up and down because it's past eight and we're running late. By the time she gets to the lounge and approaches the front door and my hopes are rising that we may actually leave she'll decide that one last look at all the windows in the place is required, in case we've left any of them unlocked. Then it'll be "I'll just have a wee before we go."

C'mon chaps, you've all been there, right?

The worst bit is when we're half way down the lane to the road and she'll ask me, "you did lock the front door and close the bathroom window didn't you?" It doesn't make any difference after that as to how certain you are that you'd done those things. The doubts set in and you agonise all evening over whether you did them or not.

Our landlord John is over here at the moment. He's only here for four days as he's come over to drive his 4x4 back to the UK. Anyone living here (and doubtless any number of other countries) will know that you can't keep a UK registered vehicle here for longer than so many months. John brings his Jeep Commander over here so that he can tow his boats around when the family's here for their holidays. He needs, however, to take it out of Greece now and again and so he's here to drive it back on Boxing Day, when he'll be catching the ferry from Rhodes very early in the morning. Yesterday he had to go to Rhodes town to see a number of important people about stuff and so he asked if we'd like to go along for the ride. It would give us a chance to do some odd bits of shopping and have a coffee somewhere while he went to his meetings, then share a snack lunch and do some food shopping before heading home again.

Cue the scenario I described above. There was John, outside in the Commander, engine ticking over outside the front gates at a couple of minutes after our planned departure time. There was I, standing where he could see me from the car, outside our front door tapping my tootsies impatiently while we both awaited the emergence of my dearly beloved. That car's engine is 5.7 litres. Must have guzzled a gallon or two while he waited, bless him.

Anyway, we made it into town and the heavens opened. Fortunately, we just had time to walk into the town itself from where we'd told John to drop us (San Francisco), since he had to meet his accountant some way out of town near to Rodini Park. We decided that the first port of call needed to be a café for two reasons: 1. it was going to pour down any moment and 2. we both needed the loo.

It was great. We got ourselves settled in the Yachting Club Café, ordered our filter coffees and watched the sheets of rain and flashes of lightning outside. Then we moved tables after five minutes owing to the fact the the precise spot where our table was situated was the one place where after a few minutes of torrential rain, it got in and cascaded down all over the table from several feet above our heads.

Bit disappointed in this shot really. I'd hoped that the torrential rain outside would be evident, but it isn't. You'll just have to trust me.

Never mind, we were able to sit out the worst of the rain and then do a bit of shopping, dodging the huge puddles and touting our seldom-used umbrellas.

On the way back I suddenly remembered. I'd promised Irini the day before that I'd ring her when I got home to tell her whether or not we'd be able to come to that get-together. Ah well, she'd only asked me at the last minute. No planning, no forethought. Her and her hubby will already know that we couldn't make it. 

Now, if she'd given me a week or two's notice...

Thursday, 15 December 2016

A Hamfisted Heist and a Handful of Photos

The Hamfisted Heist story...

A couple of days ago there was a bank robbery in Faliraki. It was straight out of an old Woody Allen movie and the police had arrested the villain within three hours of the "job" having been done.

"Take the Money and Run" is one of my all-time favourite Woody Allen movies. I especially loved the scene where the culprit, Virgil Starkwell, played by Woody Allen, is casing the bank that he's going to rob. He hides a camera in a loaf of bread then goes into the bank and holds the loaf up to his eye like you would with a normal, undisguised camera. Plus, the lens is sticking out of the front of the loaf. It's a bit of a dead giveaway.

Well, this fella, a 30 year-old Greek from Kremasti, had sat on and off for a couple of days in the café across the road from the EuroBank branch that he intended to hold up, watching the comings and goings to plot the best time for his heist. While he sat there he was wearing a jacket and a cap.

On the day of the heist he nicked a motorbike and put on a blonde wig, then, wearing the same jacket and hat that he'd been wearing while rather suspiciously sitting in the café and gazing at the bank across the road, he entered the bank toting a gun and demanded that he be given lots of cash. He walked out with around €17,000 in used notes, got on the motorbike and tore off triumphantly.

Half an hour later he was sitting in his favourite kafeneion at Kremasti, not far from his home, still wearing the same cap and jacket. The only thing he'd dispensed with was the wig. Of course, the police had been called to the bank, interviewed various members of staff and had also asked in the café over the road if anyone had seen anything, which or course they had. They circulated the suspect's description and within a couple of hours the report came in that a man fitting the description of the suspect was flashing his money about in his local over in Kremasti. 

The heist was at around 11.00am. At around 2.00pm he had his collar felt, turned around to see a view full of policeman and was told that he was under arrest.

I wonder if he looked surprised. Somehow I think there's room for doubt.

The thing is, more news about this story breaking today, a day or two after the heist, says that he was very, very hard up and owed thousands on his electricity bill. If your neighbours know you're in such straightened circumstances, it may just be a tad suspicious to suddenly be waving wads of cash about just after the local TV has reported a bank robbery not too far away. Every café does have TV screens which are on most of the time after all.

He's also reported today as telling the boys in blue that he's deeply sorry, acted on the spur of the moment and "won't do it again guv'nor, honest." Well, that last bit may be colloquialised in a British fashion just a smidgin, but you get the picture. It is, however, hard to maintain that you acted on impulse when you've already been seen casing the bank for several days prior to the actual heist taking place. Plus, does he always carry a gun around with him then?

I do get the impression that he may well be spending some time as a guests of the government fairly soon. 

Now, of course, if his financial situation really is dire, or even if it isn't, isn't the issue here. The whole story just highlights the difference between crime on a Greek island and crime in a larger, mainland area or perhaps city. When I'm working in the summer doing the excursions, I often end up chatting about various aspects of life on a Greek island and how it all compares with the UK, Germany or perhaps (these days) Poland. On the subject of crime I always say that the crime levels on an island like this are significantly lower than in mainland urban areas, which applies as much to such areas in Greece as well as in other countries.

The bank robbery story is big news here precisely because it's a fairly rare occurrence. That said, it is something we are hearing more frequently than we did ten years ago. Cue talk about the financial crisis, austerity and all that stuff, eh?

And the Handful of Photos Story...

Changing the subject completely, here are a bunch of photos from the past few weeks. I may have posted one or two of these on my "JM Published Works" Facebook page, so you might just have seen them. Hope you like 'em anyway:

Glystra Beach 17th November.

Pefkos main beach, also 17th November.

Chairs and table at the local service station just outside of Gennadi village. 13th December.

The sea (from our garden) showing some "lumps" on 14th December.

St. Paul's Bay, Lindos, 11th December. 25ºC - nice eh?

A sight that gets a Rhodean resident much more excited than those scenic shots above, a full wood-store with the cold nights coming on.

The winter schedule settles around us imperceptibly. In the past couple of days the shepherd in the Seat Ibiza is back. His flock enjoys decimating the garden cuttings we throw across the lane, thus helping keep the environment clean and tidy. It IS all green waste, I should add.

Throws hands up and admits, "I'm as crazy about baby lambs as the next old softie."


Sunday, 11 December 2016

Fruit and the Lack of It

Mihalis wasn't looking too cheery. Our friend with the ducks, hens and rabbits didn't feel much like smiling. His expression was prompted in part by my enquiry,

"Harvested your olives then Mihali?" I asked. Bad question.

"Finished Yianni," he replied, with a face like he'd lost a tenner and found five Pounds. "Ten days, all done. I'll have to buy oil this year, my reserves are now so low."

"No chance you may have some to sell me then?" I asked. In retrospect it was probably not the most tactful question to put at that moment. In the past Mihalis has often just given us bottles of oil whenever he's remembered to do so, often amounting to five litres in a calendar month. One time, probably eight years ago now if my reckoning is correct, he did let us pay him because I presented him with my 30 kilo barrel and asked him if he could fill it for us. Of course on that occasion I made sure he understood that I wanted to pay him. It was, though, the cheapest oil purchase we've ever made.

Mihalis' olive harvest is usually a three-week affair. That's three weeks of seven days a week, 8.00am starts and 4.00pm finishes, resulting in his driving his battered ancient old Suzuki Swift to the mill, taking his harvest in sacks there over two journeys. It's always struck me as odd that he still has a car and not a 4x4. In fact his car is a similar model to the one we had for our first six years here, except that ours was a hatchback and his has a boot (trunk, guys). He does, nevertheless, always manage. I won't say that his is a car that I'd want, though, to be offered a lift in while wearing smart-casual.

He looked at me all world-weary. "No rain Yianni. The olives are halia this year." Ηalia [Χάλια] basically translates as lousy, awful, they suck. Yes, we have had a bit of rain this past couple of weeks, but we'd need heavy rain for five days out of seven for the next couple of months to catch up on the deficit. When it mattered most, last winter and this October, it didn't rain (or didn't rain enough) and thus the olives didn't fatten up. OK, so there will be some (a few I'd say) who'll say their olives are OK, owing to their trees being situated where their micro-climate maybe helped by protecting their moisture levels, but as a general rule, we're looking at a shortage.

Hey ho, so it'll probably be off to the mill for us to buy some oil to stop us running dry. We probably get through about two litres a month and we don't have enough to get us through the winter now.

At least, although there may be a distinct shortage of olive oil, there is no lack of citrus fruit. You can always tell what time of the year it is by looking at the fruit bowl in our house...

And, apart from the tommies, this lot didn't cost us a penny

And before your eyebrows make a sturdy attempt to rise so far up your forehead as to be hidden by your fringe, you may wish to know that those "in the know", as it were, will always say that the best place for your tomatoes is in a bowl at room temperature with the rest of the fruit, rather than in the fridge. And not just because they are officially classed botanically as a fruit either. 

Our fruit bowl always looks like this from December through January and often beyond, largely because just about every Greek friend we have has citrus trees and they invariably have far too much fruit to eat themselves, luckily for us.

In fact, my dearly beloved often ends up juicing ours before they go "off" owing to the sheer quantity we usually receive. I know I've probably said it before, but when you eat oranges or mandarins that you've either picked yourself, or were grown not a stone's throw away, you get spoilt. Their flavour is that good. It's one of the great joys of the winter season. It's also why the only houses, or rooms, in which you'll see oranges in a bowl during the summer months will be in accommodation where tourists are staying. No self-respecting Rhodean resident will eat such tasteless matter, which has probably been shipped several thousand miles to reach the shops here. If you buy your oranges down the road in the local greengrocer's, you won't see them on sale there during the summer months. 

Mihalis, at least, does have oranges on his trees. He perked up when I mentioned those. Don't ask me why there doesn't seem to be such a crisis with the citrus fruit as there is with the olive harvest this year. The answer is quite beyond me.

It's not something I'll fret about, as long as I can peel a scrumptious navel while we're doing our couch-potato thing while watching Strictly. Bliss.

Monday, 5 December 2016

The Land of the Living

Ventured out for the first time in over a week and a half today. Some people apparently get island fever from living on an island. I think I get "stuck-at-home-itis" after so many days without venturing outside the gates, apart from a couple of short walks in the hills to clear the passages.

Aside from the sore throat, the bad head and the pains like razor blades in my chest when I coughed, I actually enjoyed the first four or five days of being down with a cold. You know what I mean, just laying around and sleeping, being pampered and not worrying about anything in connection with day-to-day life is quite pleasurable - for a time. But, since I cannot recall any period in my entire adult life when a cold lasted more than four or five days, once I got into the second week I was climbing the walls.

I've been finding it hard to type too because I seem to have a painful case of Tennis Elbow, or, as seems more likely, repetitive strain injury (apparently some say it's the same thing), and it hurts all the more when I type or wiggle the mouse on the laptop. Yup, I'm even suffering in silence as I prepare this post, but I don't like to talk about it...

This morning was the first morning since a week last Tuesday when I woke up feeling almost normal and actually felt like getting out of bed. So we headed off to Arhangelos (with a detour to the Western Union office in Massari to pay part of the water bill) to do a spot of shopping and have a coffee somewhere where we could watch the world going by.

The Greco Café serves up excellent filter coffee plus bougatsa to die for...

It was while waiting for that little treat to arrive that an old friend in the shape of Stefanos the coach driver came in and wandered over for a chat and to wish us "kalo himona". I used to work with him many years ago, when I first started doing excursions and we used to have a lot of laughs because I'd tell the guests that he reminded me of Sylvester Stallone (he does, really!), although he's much younger of course. I'd always then add "and girls, he's single.")

He'd had a good season, mainly because he's one of only five drivers who have a contract with a company that only deals wth Russian tourists, so he was guaranteed transfer and excursion work all season long. I was pleased for him. He's not idle in winter either, since his family has a building business; although of course, evidently he finds time for a morning coffee with a couple of palikari.

Arhangelos was buzzing today, there was that much double parking in the main street you'd have thought it was a double-parking festival. The usual plethora of mopeds and motorbikes were whizzing this way and that, making any manoeuvre in the car a lesson in how to look in five directions at once before turning left or right. In short, just the kind of place to be when you've had ten days without seeing a soul. We paid a visit to our old friend in the very trad veg store too...

You can't see the tzaki in the corner in this one, but you can see his laouto, which he picks up and strums between customers

Sometimes it's months between our visits, owing to the fact that it's half an hour's drive away, but he always remembers us and his produce always looks very fresh, very local and his prices very low. We never walk out of this shop without several bags full to bursting with vegetables, plus today we picked up a fresh horiatiko loaf, some large-crystal pink sea salt and a fresh bag of tsai vounou (mountain tea), which is a must when you're under par.

Mountain tea, successfully transferred to storage jar.

If you talk about drinking tea with most Greeks, penny to a pound they'll be referring to mountain tea rather than Brook Bond PG Tips. Whenever we're at friends' houses and they offer us tea, if we don't specify then that's what they'll serve up. Seems the Greeks are quite healthy in some departments without even really being aware of the fact. Brew up a pot of this (although most of our friends boil up a saucepan of water and chuck some in) and add a spoonful of local honey and you'll probably sleep like a log. It's one of those teas that you can almost feel doing you good as you sip at it.

I almost enjoy being ill when I can curl up on the sofa, as I did this past weekend, with the rain pouring down outside and a nice large fleece blanket over me, to watch the UK snooker final with my fingers wrapped around a mug of tsai vounou. There's something delicious about watching snooker when it's wet outside. That knowledge that you have hours ahead during which you probably don't need to move more than an inch or two is exquisite.

Today, of course, the much appreciated rains have passed and the sun is out again. The forecast doesn't show anything much rain-wise on the horizon for a while yet. At least, though, yesterday we did have some decent rainfall, very heavy at times and accompanied by the usual light show of fork lightning and thunder crashes. Fab.

Today as I said...

Like the new toy?
Yes, by complete accident I found a maximum-minimum thermometer at a DIY/garden store a few weeks ago, something I've been looking for for many years. As you can see from the indicator, it went down to 10ºC during the night last night and today it's a very respectable 22ºC. I just love these thermometers. They remind me of geography lessons during my schooldays. Ah, nostalgia, it's not what it used to be.

So, as you can see from this "rambling" - I appear to be back in the land of the living.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Symi, sniffles and a snotty nose

Tuesday 29th November

Can't believe that it's already November 29th, over a month since our visit to Symi and I haven't got around to writing about it. During this past week I do have a fairly good excuse though, I've been down with the worst cold I've had in more years than I can remember. It's been difficult remaining upright without my head complaining in the strongest possible terms, thus sending me back to bed to get horizontal again.

Good news before I go back to the Symi trip. Today it's been raining. Today's also the first day since last Friday that I've transferred from the bed to the sofa to see if I could manage that. Still here, so I must be on the road to recovery. I even managed to write a few words of the new book, "A Jay in the Jacaranda Tree" today as well. Hopefully that will be out before next season begins.

The rain's been so lovely that I just had to take a few photos from the sofa...

Sitting at that table earlier, looking out of the French Windows down the valley we were a bit irritated to see (we checked with the binoculars to be sure) that the flamin' horse that gave me a nip is down there on the loose again. They had disappeared for a couple of days, but we haven't walked it because it's been all I could do to stand up and walk to the bathroom. Now it seems that Dimitri has brought them back, so we don't know what we're going to do next time we need to walk down that way. A friend has just posted on Facebook that she's had a fright from a donkey in the last day or so too. Maybe the weather's been making all the animals go AWOL, I dunno. Are we due an earthquake? Don't animals tend to sense such things?

On the trip to Symi though, what a great day out it proved to be. I'd e-mailed Mihali who runs the Nikolaos X from Mandraki to confirm that it was sailing on Tuesday October 25th, and he told me that instead of us paying the usual €20 each return, we could go for €35 for the both of us. Even better than that, when we got to the quayside at Mandraki at 8.45am, we were told that as a special deal we could go for €15 each return, so we felt well pleased as we walked aboard the very smartly liveried vessel. Years ago when I used to do the Symi excursion for work we'd occasionally make the crossing on the "old" Nikolaos X, which had a rather staid paintwork design, but the new-look Nikolaos is very on-trend...

Image courtesy
The "old one" looked like this:

Image courtesy
In fact, the difference is so striking that I was convinced that they'd retired the old lady and brought in a newer vessel with the same name. I only found out I was wrong when I went to the bar in the lounge after we'd set sail to order a frappé and got talking to the couple who were serving and asked them if they remembered me from a few years ago. They said they did indeed and I also brought up the subject of the ship's cat. The old Nikolaos X always had a cat on board and, sure enough...

I asked the ya-ya (whose family runs the ship) where the cat was, because I couldn't see him anywhere. She pulled back the cover and there he was, sleeping contentedly out of sight. There are no rats or mice on board the Nik X!

Anyway, I complimented the crew on their new vessel when they replied, "She's not new. She's the same boat." Now, you've seen the photos, would you have thought that it's the same boat? It even looks bigger to me. They told me that yes indeed they had given it a major refit, which had involved someone setting about the superstructure with an oxy-acetylene torch, but it was still the original Nikolaos X. Well it was a very successful job in my view.

Of course, with it being the very last week of the season, we kind of anticipated having the ship to ourselves. Wrong. She was surprisingly packed to capacity, maybe owing to the exceptional weather, I don't really know. But instead of being able to wander the decks during the crossing, we found ourselves having to grab a couple of places in the lounge and pretty much stay there for the duration. I did venture upstairs for a look around, but there were so many bodies about it could well have been the first week of August. At least there's on-board wi-fi.

Arriving at Panormitis I was dismayed to hear that the old bakery up behind the monastery had closed. That had been something I'd really been looking forward to, remembering that when I'd been doing the weekly excursion I'd always make a bee-line there for one of their delicious TDF apple pies with cinnamon, whilst the "faithful" tourists all made their way into the monastery itself. The bakery had been a wonderful throwback to the past, with a great stone oven behind and to the side of the serving counter and you could watch them using wooden paddles to slide new batches in and baked ones out while you breathed in the exquisite aroma whilst watching your milopita being wrapped in a tissue for immediate consumption, whilst it was still warm of course.

The old bakery at Panormitis may be gone, but at least the one on the front is a fairly pleasant place to sit.

We were eventually on our way again and couldn't wait to be sailing once more into Symi's harbour. It's a place so familiar to the both of us, since we'd holidayed there several times before moving out to Rhodes and then I'd done the weekly excursion while working on Rhodes for three seasons on the trot. We also spent an off-season break there in November some years ago with a couple of our Greek friends.

Our last-but-one Greek holiday before moving out here was on Symi, so that would have been in June 2004 (we'd also gone to Makrigialos, Crete in September, before moving out to Rhodes in August 2005). Anyway, here are the shots I took on October 25th as we renewed our acquaintance with one of Greece's most beautiful islands...

At the top of this street, which leads away from one corner of the harbour,  is Taverna O Meraklis, which was always our favourite.

Looks like this shop will even sell you a kitten if you're interested.

Climbing the Kali Strata.

There's the "Nik X" tied up below.

A brilliant spot on the Kali Strata for taking in the wonderful view.

The Dolphin Italian restaurant, just behind the bridge.

There's so much I could say about Symi. The positives are that it's still as beautiful as ever. The negatives? Well, it's always difficult going back somewhere and expecting to find things the same isn't it? For starters, we wanted to eat out for lunch and were torn between two places. One was the little restaurant way out on the corner (further on past the boat yard) before what used to be called Nos Beach, but now isn't. It's called Tholos and always had a great selection of starters ideal for non-meat eaters. Its location is superb, right on a corner with two sides facing the sea, which is only a few feet below your table. It represents quite an investment in time because it's a long walk out there from the back of the harbour, but we'd never failed to get a table there in the past.

It was either the Tholos or O Meraklis, as I was quite keen to see Sotiri again, a gentle man who always walks slowly and reminds me of the old British comedian Freddie "Parrot-Face" Davies. We strolled right past O Meraklis and if Sotiri had been in evidence we'd certainly have eaten there. Instead there was a much younger chap waiting tables who looked as though he may be Sotiri's son, although I couldn't be sure. We hung around a while to see if Sotiri would put in an appearance, but he didn't. A lot of years have gone by, a lot of water under the proverbial bridge, since we first ate there. It was 1993 in fact, a mere 23 years ago. One can hardly blame Sotiri if he's taking things a little easier these days.

It would have been ever so slightly deflating to eat there and not see our old friend so we plumped to make the walk out to the Tholos. It may have been October 25th, but it still felt like mid-September temperature-wise and we were well moist with perspiration when we arrived, only to find that the place was packed out, mainly with day-trippers from the Nikoloas X. Once again, we hung around a while before deciding that time constraints dictated that we go somewhere else. So, reluctantly, we set off for the long walk back to the harbour. It was only when we reached the bridge that we spotted the modestly sized "Dolphin" Italian eatery that we'd patronised several times back in 2004. Check out the post on James Collins' Symi Dream blog which talks about the Dolphin.

Result! No sooner had we decided to sit down than we began to remember why we'd eaten there several times 12 years ago. The thing was though, would it still be the same, or have things changed here too? Our answer was soon forthcoming when the proprietor, Basilis came out to prepare our table, hand us menus and ask what we'd like to drink. He told us when we asked that he'd been running the place for 23 years and thus was definitely the chef/proprietor when we'd frequented the place in 2004. We'd eaten there several times then for two reasons, a) the food was fab and b) the prices surprisingly keen.

Since he wasn't overly busy, we had quite a good chat and told him that we remembered being served by a British woman 12 years ago, who it turns out is his wife Rachael. It didn't take long to discover that he knew Cornwall well (we have good friends near Padstow), since Rachael is from St. Austell! He's also very familiar with the area of South Wales that we'd adopted as our home for 24 years before we moved to Rhodes. Not only did we thoroughly enjoy our natter, the pizza was excellent and the whole bill including drinks came to €13.30.

All in all, that left us with an abidingly cozy feeling about Symi as we re-boarded the "Nik" for the return leg. Some things have changed, as is inevitable. Some things though, are still as they were. 

Before getting home without hanging around, since the better half wasn't feeling well due in part to tiredness (it's a long day from Kiotari and back again), we found ourselves enthusing in the car about the whole day.

Wednesday 30th November

The sun's been out again all day today. Not that I've seen much of it. After having got up and spent much of yesterday on the sofa I spent a night frequently disturbed by a hacking cough, so I returned to my bed again today. It's really tricky when you have Greek friends and you go down with a cold. Without exception they'll all insist that you ought to go to the doctor, they'll be very dismayed that you don't have either a medical thermometer or a blood pressure machine at home and will tut about your failure to stock up with a couple of prescriptions. It's amazing I'm still alive in their opinion.

Only the other day I read a survey that showed Greece is well out on top of the list of European countries where excessive use is made of antibiotics. We all know that they're gradually losing their usefulness. So-called experts say it's because bacteria are developing resistance, but far more sensible to me is the explanation that antibiotics are killing off all the susceptible bacteria, leaving only the resistant ones to survive. End result, future disaster. The problem is, the drug companies are huge and powerful. They need to sell their products, pay their shareholders their dividends. There is no reason, for example, for anyone to suffer from type 2 diabetes. With the correct diet and exercise routine it can be reversed. Here's the proof. Trouble is, too much money is made by the companies producing the insulin, the hardware for sufferers to check their readings and administer the insulin etc. for them to allow the general public to get wind of the real solution.

Here in Greece, if you get a sniffle you zip down to the local GP and come out with about three prescriptions, one of which is almost certainly going to be for antibiotics. Trying to explain to one's Greek friends why one just lets a cold run its course, since there is no known cure, is not too easy I can tell you. After all, they go to the doc for a pin prick! Yes, sure, you can alleviate the symptoms, but a cold is a cold. Sore throat first, then comes the bad head, the catarrh, the cough and eventually it clears. At least I haven't resorted to claiming I have 'man-flu".

I'm prepared to be patient and enjoy the personal attention I'm getting from my resident nurse. 😉