Saturday, 2 July 2016

Village Hospitality

You can say what you like about the Greeks, and many would, but despite all the trash that's said about their "industrial" level of tax evasion, their willingness to sell their own mother for a few Euros and their wiliness in all things financial, you can't fault their culture of hospitality.

Firstly, those stereotypes I refer to above are wildly exaggerated anyway. In fact, when I find myself talking to tourists or even ex-pats over here who start on about Greek tax evasion and craftiness, even sharp practice in business, I usually refer them back to the stock-in-trade of daytime TV in the UK these days.

I shall proceed to illustrate. On a weekday morning, you'll see programmes like Ripoff Britain, Crimewatch Roadshow, Don't Get Done Get Dom, Fake Britain, Cowbow Builders, Saints and Scroungers and more. Evening viewing often features shows like Watchdog, where they hunt down charlatans who rip off the unsuspecting public. Now, I'm not knocking the UK (too risky, the backlash is usually very defensive!) but I'm just making a simple observation. Greece is not unique. In fact a recent UK radio documentary on BBC Radio 4, which was dedicated to uncovering the truth behind the rhetoric, concluded that when you compare wages and working conditions, Greeks work far harder and for much longer hours than most of the rest of Europe. In my experience of not only having had Greek relatives for 40 years and more, but also having lived on Rhodes for almost 11 years, I reckon they got it about right.

What the critics (who so often go off half-cocked without a full grasp of the facts) forget is that the vast majority of Greeks are working in PAYE jobs and thus not in a position to sneak income past the taxman. Their wages and pensions have been slashed in recent years, those that do run businesses have seen the taxes hiked to breaking point and yet still most common or garden Greeks exhibit a stoicism that is admirable.

Which brings me to the real point of this post. Me and the better half frequently find ourselves walking the streets and alleys of the local villages, many of which are up in the mountains, on a summer's evening when the temperatures are slightly more bearable and the breeze in those places helps one cope. Recently we were up in the tiny and 75% deserted village of Mesanagros and, as we wandered, we passed a small orchard where a sun-grizzled man was busy picking some small ruby-red fruit from a tree. He was not more than ten feet from us and so we hailed him with a polite "kalispera sas". He replied with a smile and thus we exchanged a few pleasantries. As usual he asked us all about our background, where we lived, whether we worked and what we did for work once we told him that we did, if we had children, how often we cleaned our teeth (well, I lied about that one, but you get the general idea).

I asked him what the fruit was that he was harvesting, because to us it looked like red grapes, but it couldn't be because it was growing on a regular, green-leaved tree. Instantly he tossed us some to try and told us that they were Bourne'les, for which there is no English equivalent, but it refers to a particular species of small plum. Once we got a hold of them they were indeed like Victoria plums in miniature, the same size as your average red grape in fact. They were deliciously sweet and tart at the same time and had a pit inside exactly as do their larger relatives. As soon as we declared that we liked them he picked a big handful, walked over to the fence and filled our hands with them as a gift.

A little later we were drifting down a narrow back alley when we passed an open door, within which we could see a senior couple lounging on a bed watching the news on an old TV, one of those with a huge pregnant back to it and a v-shaped antenna on the top. It's not unusual to see a bed in the same room as the kitchen in an old Greek village house. They hailed us with a "Kalos tous" and we returned the greeting. Within minutes we found ourselves seated at their modest kitchen table, which was laden with courgettes, aubergines, onions and tomatoes, all of which of course came from their own garden. They told us their woes, largely blaming the financial crisis (justifiably) for most of them. They had two grown-up children living far away in Rhodes town. 

"There's no work to speak of down here," they told us. "Our children have to go to town to survive." The fact that they have a house here in the village is about as useful as a bubble on the breeze, when there's no way to earn a livelihood while living in it. Of course, there is now beginning a gradual movement of many younger Greek families back to the land as a result of the current situation. In fact on the TV just recently there was a family of husband, wife and two small children who were now farming aloe vera plants and beginning to turn a healthy profit at it too. The kids, who were about 4 and 6 respectively, were bursting with enthusiasm and happiness at their new lifestyle. Every cloud, eh?

Our hosts insisted that we drink a glass of fresh fruit juice and eat something. The old wife was soon at the kitchen sink and quickly placed a plate of chopped honeydew melon before us, with a couple of forks and some paper serviettes. This experience is by no means rare. When we eventually left they insisted that we take with us some of their produce too.

I had occasion to be out alone just last evening and so my wife went to the beach for a swim. On her way back she had about two kilometres of dusty lane to walk and that takes her past the "allotment" of our old friend Agapitos, who is probably in his mid seventies and lives in Asklipio village, four kilometres up the mountain from us. As she passed she noted that his pickup was parked on the lane, indicating that he was inside the fence among his olive trees, chicken run and vegetable patch and so she called out a "kalispera" in case he could see or hear her from within. Indeed he could and he returned the greeting, my wife just noticing a rustling among the dense undergrowth about fifty meters in from the gate in the fence.

She carried on walking, but by the time she'd made it to the far end of our fence, about fifty meters from our front gate, Agapitos had approached in the truck and drawn up beside her. She expected him to trundle past with a peep of the horn and a wave from the driver's window, but no, he drew to a halt with a squeal from his old brakes.

"Here, Kyria Maria," he said, proffering some eggs that his hens had only just laid. She told me when I got home that he fairly beamed with delight to be able to share his abundance with his neighbour. We were down to one egg in the fridge too. Timely, or what?

The real Greece is still alive and well if you go looking for it. Here are a few links to sites about the village of Mesanagros...

And. here are a few recent photos from around the island. Not related to the story above, just things I've snapped as they took my fancy. Hope you like them...

Another delicious lunch at the Odyssey Restaurant in the Old Town. Aubergine Saganaki with Greek Salad (Odyssey style)

View from Grigoris taverna, Stegna, during a recent Bay to Bay excursion.

The local bus passes us during our lazy cruise.

Onboard the Triton, with Captain Mihalis at the wheel.


Umm, OK, so yes, another lunch at the Odyssey! I ordered fried potatoes for a change and they come like this - fab-you-lus. Plus my favourite - Halloumi Salad, with more squeeky cheese than you'll get anywhere else! Oh, and a beer for medicinal purposes you understand.

Anyone who knows Rhodes will know where this is.


Minutes away from Mandraki, the most oft-used entrance to the Old Town.



  1. Interesting post, as usual, John. I haven't been to Mesanagros for a while, is the little cafe still open? I hope so as the owner came back to be near his ageing mother and she provided him with eggs from her chickens for delicious omelettes. It's sad to think about the change in the village and surrounding area in the last 70 years and what caused it.

  2. Agree 100% John. Most people who are "experts on Greece" probably couldn't find the country on a map!! Yes, there is tax evasion and yes, they are the most hospitable people in the World...

  3. A wonderful little look into village life and it's so true that they have kept an amazing generosity of spirit through this crisis. Love the drive across from there to the other coast too. I do wish the expats that constantly complain about Greece and it's people would just go back home!

  4. Hi John. Dermot Plaice here. Maybe you remember we met in Heraklion at the school some years ago. Just picking up some pointers from your blog as I want to start my own about life in Crete. Love that picture of the fried potatoes and the halloumi (my favourite cheese)!

    1. When you're up and running Dermot, let me know the URL and I'll plug it for you!