Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Real Greece

We often talk about people experiencing the "real Greece", but what do we actually mean? I know that when I talk to holidaymakers we often discuss the difference between the islands, more often still the difference between places on the same island. Take Rhodes as an example. One of the larger of the Greek islands, it has a fairly extensive road system. It has some pretty lively 'resorts' (I hate using that word if I'm honest) and yet still some very quiet backwaters where old village women still hobble around in their headscarves and bake bread in stone ovens in their outdoor kitchens.

Before coming to live here on Rhodes we'd never holidayed here. We'd always mistakenly taken Rhodes to be over-commercialised and far too "touristy" for our taste. Of course, through happenstance we came to be living in the south of the island and now see that we were quite wrong. Most certainly there are areas on the island where we most definitely would have been miserable if we'd had to spend a week or two there on holiday, but there are equally areas where you can still find what we tend to call "the real Greece."

I don't doubt that different people would probably have different parameters for describing what they perceive to be the "real Greece," but I'll attempt to outline mine. If you come here for a holiday and you think of yourself as a "Grecophile" you'll probably want to find traditional tavernas, perhaps too ouzeries, where the house wine is still served in those little aluminium jugs and you always get a glass of water along with any alcoholic drink in a café or bar. You'll expect to interact with local people who'll without prompting want to sit you down on their terrace and ply you with ouzo, some freshly baked delicacy or at the very least a cool drink and some water melon. They'll take the time to communicate with you, even if through sign language, and they'll want to know all about your family, your job and your financial situation without at all thinking that they're prying.

In the "real Greece" you'll wander down to a beach that's not packed to the gills with umbrellas and screaming kids, but rather one where on Sundays half the people there taking a dip and relaxing are the local Greeks on "Volta" day, with their families. In the first hours of daylight or during the evening there will be old Greek women and a few men treading water a few metres from the shore putting the world to rights as they enjoy a conversation in the cool of the sea for half an hour. There won't be "water sport" centres with speed boats tearing around the bay creating unwanted wakes while you're taking your dip in the otherwise flat calm waters as they put the fear of God into a few screaming youths clinging on for grim life to some inflatable rubber thingamybob.

In the "real Greece" you'll wander through village streets that are too narrow for most vehicles, you'll see donkeys making their way to and from their workplace to their home enclosures, sometimes accompanied by their owners but, often as not, making the trip alone, knowing exactly where they're going. You'll see them tethered in olive groves, staring languidly at you as they position themselves in the shade of the most convenient tree. You'll spot goatherds hanging around while a few metres away their charges nibble at anything they feel is edible.

You'll probably expect that old geezers in pickup trucks almost as old as their drivers will wave to you as you pass them, even though you've never seen them before. You'll eat out in the evening and find that after midnight you're still sitting there, probably sipping at a Metaxa and popping those fresh grapes into your mouth that the taverna owner brought out as a freebie at the end of your meal. You'll be answering all those questions that the family who own the place are firing at you. They'll be asking questions like how the Brexit will affect you, where else in Greece you've been and how it compares with where they live. Wherever else you've been will of course always not be quite as nice as where you are having this conversation now. At least that's what the folk you're talking to will want to get you to agree on.

In the "real Greece" you'll have discovered the occasional taverna where, as the evening draws on and the clients thin out a little, the owner will spontaneously break into a dance as the speakers pump out a traditional old "Hasapiko" tune, or perhaps a "Zebehiko".

There are just now and again, little things that happen that kind of say to you subliminally, "Yes, this is the real Greece". These may be quite unexpected and all the more pleasure-inducing as a result. I'll cite an example from last Thursday on Halki.

I had about a dozen guests from the UK to 'look after', which means giving them some basic info about the island, including, of course the time of the boat's departure on its return to Rhodes, before letting them loose to spend a few hours exploring this most delightful of islands on their own. Along with the UK guests I had a young Swedish couple and a woman from the Czech republic with two small children. The Swedish couple were soon off on their own, drinking in the torpor-inducing environs of the little port of Nymborio and the UK guests wanted to know how to get to a beach for a cool off. On Halki there is a kind of bus service. I say "kind of" because it's a minibus that goes up and down the solitary road from time to time, always returning to the quayside to hang about for a while before making the same trip again. I've always had the impression that the bus goes and comes as and when it wants to, but is never more than fifteen or twenty minutes from arriving back at the quay.

Having explained to the guests that the beach was about a fifteen minute walk away, in the still searing heat of a Greek late morning in September, the Czech lady asked me if the bus would take her to the beach, since her two children were not much more than toddlers and would find making that walk possibly just a little too taxing. Their little legs were little indeed and so I replied that, well, yes, if she'd care to wait around near the quayside long enough then the minibus would surely be back and she'd be able to jump on and get taken to the beach in minutes. I assured her too that she'd be able to flag the bus down on its return as it passed the beach and get brought back to the harbour later as well. She seemed happy with this and so set about waiting for the bus to turn up. This would have been around 11.30am. It was probably in the lower thirties C.

Along with a couple of fellow reps, I repaired to the quayside café-bar and we ordered soft drinks and began our usual natter about life as excursion escorts. I was unaware of the time passing, but at something like 12.15pm the Czech lady appeared beside our table and said that the bus hadn't put in an appearance and she and her two very young children had been waiting around for all that time. She looked hot and bothered. I leapt to my feet and told her I'd ask our host, the nice man whose family run this bar, if he had an idea when the bus was supposed to run. Wonder of wonders, he only had a timetable (of sorts) pinned to the door of the building, didn't he.

Sadly, that timetable suggested that my Czech client may have a long wait, in fact too long a wait since it appeared to suggest that the bus wouldn't put in an appearance again here at the quayside until 3.30pm, only half an hour before we were due to leave.

Imagine how I was feeling. Owing to my poor advice this poor woman and two small children had already hung around for 45 minutes, and now they found that they still had no way of getting to that beach to cool off unless they were prepared to leg it. I felt duty-bound to do something and do something I did.

"Hold on," I told her, "I have an idea." My Greek friend Mihalis was seated at the bar next-door, where he usually hangs out, and I knew that I'd seen him whizzing back and forth along the quayside on someone's motor scooter most weeks while I've been here. I sprinted the thirty metres or so to his stool and was pleased to see that he'd finished his Elliniko and thus I explained my dilemma. Was there any way he could borrow some wheels and take my poor exasperated guest and her toddlers to the beach?

I knew that he'd rise to the challenge. He immediately leapt from his stool and trotted off to Babis Taverna, which he subsequently emerged from jangling some keys, the keys to Zois' scooter in fact. He kick started it and was soon right beside us at the front of the café on the quayside. 

"Come on then," he said, with an enthusiastic grin.

The Czech lady was hesitant. There were three of them, she and her two small daughters. How exactly did Mihalis intend to get them to the beach? It didn't take them long to follow his instructions, so the first of the toddlers climbed on to the footplate area in front of the rider, standing between his legs and grabbing on to each of the still-existing (amazing, eh?) rear view mirror stalks for stability. The mum climbed on behind Mihalis and he told the other toddler to stand by as he'd be back in five minutes. As the Czech lady threw a leg across the saddle behind him there was a beam of delight all over her face. She said:

"Well, it may have come as a bit of a surprise, but I suppose I can now say I've experienced a little of the real Greece, right?"

You know what she meant. That unselfish willingness that so many local folk display to do whatever it takes to help you out. Yes, they'll be a bit inventive with the laws of the road, but let's face it, this is a very small island we're talking about, with hardly any vehicles anyway.

As the time drew around for us and our guests to gather at the quayside to board the boat back to Kamiros Skala on Rhodes, I spotted my Czech mum and her children, both of which were doing a fine job of covering their cheeks with ice cream from the cornets that they were both licking. I strolled over to her and asked, ever so slightly anxious about how she'd reply, "So, did it turn out OK in the end?"

"Oh, yes! Perfect!!" She replied. 

"And, you got back all right?"

"No problem at all. It's been wonderful!" She added.

Doesn't it give you a warm feeling all over, and not just from the weather?

Just last night me dearly beloved and I walked the 20 minutes or so down to our local beach for our customary early evening swim. Walking back up we were just approaching the olive grove and vegetable garden of our friend Agapitos, situated along the dusty lane quite far from anywhere, when we head the engine of his pick-up truck growl into life just around the curve behind a strawberry tree.

I gently urged my wife with a hand behind the small of her back to stand to the side while we let the old man drive past as the bonnet of the truck put in an appearance a few metres ahead of us, coming our way. Spotting us he slowed, opened his window and reached for something on his passenger seat.

His hand extended from the driver's window and he dropped two freshly picked pears into our hands. We had no idea that he even had a pear tree in his "allotment" as we call it. 

We thanked him and he sped off in a cloud of dust with the words "They're clean, I've washed them," floating out from his window. Before he'd gone ten metres along the lane behind us I wash chewing on the most delicious yellow pear I'd ever tasted.

Maybe that little experience - those little experiences - help explain what the "real Greece" is perhaps?

"It's called Kinigos!" he shouted as I snapped this picture of a local arriving with some freshly caught fish for Lefkosia's fridge. "Kinigos" means "hunter", but the fish is known in English as the Common Dolphinfish, a name that could put one off. They are no relatives at all of actual dolphins of course, which are mammals.

Lunch at Lefkosia's. Three British couples joined me and I was delighted to tell them the "Moussaka" story. They ordered the best moussaka in Greece. I think from their comments afterwards that they were glad that they did so. If you don't know the "Moussaka" story, it's in one of the "Ramblings From Rhodes" series of books, but blowed if I can remember which!
Once Mihalis, by the way, had shipped the Czech lady and her kids off to the beach on the borrowed motor scooter, not fifteen minutes passed before the bus trundled back on to the quayside, and this at 12.30pm. The timetable had suggested that it wouldn't appear for another three hours.

Ah, the real Greece. Don't you just love it?


  1. Yep, mostly certainly do love the real Greece. I'm also very impressed by the Czech lady's attitude to her role as a mother. It was fantastic that she felt able to let her kids experience that kind of trust in strangers.

    1. Something else that is testimony to the culture here in Greece. There are countries where she'd have been well advised not to trust strangers, sadly. Mind you, she was in the hands of two reps from the company operating the excursion as well.