Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Say Cheese

We very rarely see deer out in the open at midday, but this doe was sheltering in the shade of an olive tree, with her fawn under another when we walked back up to the house from a very acceptable lunch at Il Porto on Kiotari front (more info on this page) the other day. We decided that their search for moisture/water was most likely the reason for them being out and about in the daylight hours.

We don't get to sit in Il Porto as often as we'd like. The summer just seems to whizz past us. But since we're taking a couple of weeks "off" and having a "holiday from home" we at last had the chance to walk down there for Sunday lunch. It was while sitting there waiting for our chickpea rissoles, green salad and toasted haloumi cheese that my wife started examining the basil plants in the planters all along the terrace balcony.

"How come every time we see someone's basil it looks so healthy?" She exclaimed. It's true, we've tried growing it so many times and every time it's died on us. We've had it in pots, in the ground, in shade, partial shade and full sun. We've put it in "black soil" (gathered from under the "strawberry tree" bushes that grow wild on the hillsides around the house) and we've used fresh compost. The result has always been the same. It starts to look ill, then all the leaves drop off and we're left with a sorry-looking skeleton of brown sticks. Hmph.

Since at this time of year the place is usually quiet, in fact Anastasia and Tassos will be closing for the winter any day now, my beloved was able to have a natter with Anastasia while Tassos prepared our lunch. She asked her how come her basil was so flushed with health and what ought we to do to emulate it.

Of course the reply was what we've come to expect. Something like "Oh I just do this and that and it grows." It's never as simple as that though. It can't be. If it were you wouldn't be able to see our house for huge basil plants and, to be honest, it's very visible. Of course too, this is toward the end of October and Anastasia told Y-Maria that the best time to put basil cuttings in is April. Nevertheless, following some pretty persistent remonstrating from my better half, she set about one or two of the annoyingly healthy plants and brought us a couple of cuttings, which she gave us with strict instructions:

"Put these in water for at least a week. Then, when you see roots shooting, put them in some good compost." Right then, a trip to the nearest garden centre is now scheduled in.

I have to say that, even if these latest attempts at growing basil don't come to anything, at least they graced our table with a nice scene and a heavenly aroma while we ate our delicious lunch...

In case you're wondering, yes I did have a beer too! It's just out of shot. The better half of course, ever virtuous, plumped for tonic.

Traganou Beach. Only minutes from Faliraki, but a world away.

As I said above, we're having a "holiday from home" and thus have been doing some excursions. We've compiled a list of places we've either still not visited in over 11 years of living here, or last went to such a long time ago that they merit a re-visit. One of the former is Traganou Beach, also rather inexplicably called Traounou. To be honest, we loved it there, but were rather hoping that there would still be a couple of sun beds and umbrellas available, but they'd already been cleared away for the winter. So, I snapped a couple of photos and we made a mental note to come back in November/December when the sun is bearable without too much shade and then I can investigate the caves that we've heard so much about. 
Traganou again, caves at the far end, still unvisited by yours truly.

Thus, on this particular day we decided to decamp to Agathi. We'd attempted a few hours on this beach when our friends Mary and Kim were here in September, but not carrying a shoehorn with us we'd not been able to even park the flamin' car, so we'd aborted that particular mission. Agathi is a truly beautiful, safe, sandy beach. It's quite a ways from anywhere, but that doesn't stop it from getting extremely busy during the high season. There are three restaurant/bars on the beach which all get dismantled and taken away during the winter, when the beach returns to its natural state, which resembles the kind of place I always imagine in my mind's eye when thinking about desert islands.

At one end too is a beachcomber's paradise, a gently tree-dotted slope that leads up to an old church set into the rock. It's a fab place for the kind who like to snap photos that capture the "essential" Greece. Here are a few of my attempts...

That's Feraklos Castle on the headland, the very last foothold of the Knights as they evacuated the island in August of 1522. (It's the tour escort coming out in me...)

When we went to Agathi, one of the three "Kantinas" had already been dismantled, but the one near which we decided to "camp" sold Fix Dark [I love the clumsy English on such Greek websites]. What a result. It's still pretty difficult finding this beer in eateries and bars, which annoys me no end. It's freely available in most supermarkets these days, but when I'm out and about it usually has to be the blonde version. Yet, here, in a prefabricated beach bar, they had it in their glass-fronted cold cabinet, thus making my lazy afternoon virtually perfect. The only thing that detracted was the fact that we had to pay €10 for two sun beds and an umbrella. Still, we are on 'holiday' after all.

The fact that it's a beautiful beach aside, it does grate when you have to walk half a mile before you can get out of your depth enough to swim without your knees or feet touching the bottom! Still and all, that's why it's a wonderful beach for families. Plus, since the sand is yellow and the water shallow, it's warmer than it feels on deeper, more shingle or pebble covered beaches. The lump in the foreground is evidence of a family having been there earlier. It's the remains of their excavations.

Another excursion we've done was a 'hinterland' wander. We wanted to re-visit the village of Apollona, which we'd only fleetingly experienced many years ago, so we plotted a route from Lardos up to Laerma, then from there to Apollona. When you reach Laerma driving up from Lardos, you see a tight right-hander a hundred metres or so before you enter the village itself and you take this. As you begin to climb the very twisty-turny route, you begin to catch glimpses of the new reservoir, which is formed by the recently constructed Gadoura Dam [see this post for lots of photos].

At one place where we caught sight of the lake, we could see how low the water level had become owing to our drought of the past 12 months. If you click on the photo below and look at it in a larger window you can see how far the water level is below what it should normally be.

Further on up the road towards Apollona you get to see and cross this quirky bridge. It amazed us that there was still some water flowing beneath it. It reminds one a little of Devil's Bridge in glorious Wales. Not anything like as grand, but if you check out that link I'm sure you'll see what I mean.

When we got to Apollona it was frappé time, so we parked up and wandered up and down the main "street". We sat in a bar at the top end of the village, right across the road from the bakery. It was ten minutes to midday. Already in the bar were two or three Greek youths, all doing the usual, tapping away with their thumbs on their mobile phones and only occasionally talking to each other. We must have turned up just in time for "to steki" (the "hangout") hour though, because as we sat there, kids who looked to us to be anything from seventeen to twenty and not much more than that, began turning up almost by the minute either on foot, on mopeds and one even in a souped-up old car.

Before much after 12 noon there were a dozen youths, some in their strangely baggy trousers, you know, those ones with the crutch somewhere between the knees (what is it with those?), some in jeans that had that many rips in them that I've have thrown them out a couple of years ago and all in hooded fleeces. Well, it was only about 25ºC and they don't want to get a chill.

As they turned up and flopped down around a knot of tables, often not a word was said. To a 'man' they whipped out their phones and got on with the thumbing job. Eventually some form of conversation began, about sport of course. Another 'of course' was the inclusion of the word "malaka" with every other syllable, but what do you expect, eh? We still found ourselves warming to these village lads. Every one of them, we knew, would treat us with due deference or respect (which in fact they did as we had to squeeze past them to get inside to visit the loo) and they all were drinking coffees. Some had a sandwich too. 

When we got up to leave they all joined in a "Kali sas 'mera" as we exited the place for a stroll around the village. Quite what they do for a living or whether they're still studying we didn't fathom.

Centre of the village of Apollona. Turning thru 180º from this shot there was a nice little taverna/bar that we'd probably have sat in had we known it was there before we went to the boy's hangout. Worth a look down this street.
The "old boys' hangout. Most had set off for home where their lunch was no doubt on the table by the time I snapped this one.
Setting out from Apollona we wanted to pay a return visit to the Elafos Hotel at Profitis Ilias, somewhere else that we hadn't been for many years. You can go either of two ways because it's the other side of the mountain from Apollona. We chose the Eloussa route and, as you near Profitis Ilias, you pass this little church all on its ownsome along the lane...

I was dead keen to wander up to Mussolini's House once we'd parked up at the Elafos Hotel. It's still amazing that nothing is ever done to make the place a tourist attraction. There aren't even signs telling folk that it's only a short climb up from the Elafos car park. One could visit the hotel, have a drink or a meal and leave and never know what was just up the slope...

We opted for smoked salmon baguettes a tonic and a Fix beer. OK, one only does this rarely, which is just as well because that little lot set us back over €22. Yes, I gasped too. 

In fact, in the interests of perspective and all that, last night we ate out (on our way home from a trip to Symi - more about that another time) at the fab, trad, Savvas Grill in Lardos village. We ordered green salad, chickpea rissoles, big beans (gigantes), oven potatoes and grilled Haloumi, plus a 500ml bottle of Retsina. Bill? €22. Needless to say we left Basili, who served us, €25.

At the Elafos Hotel. Take a well stocked wallet.
As a final stop on our way home we wanted to visit Monolithos. We'd been there just last year when my wife's niece Chloe and her fella Elliot were over for a holiday, but even then we never made the climb to the castle on the monolith itself. We've never done it in fact. So, taking the Sianna route we turned up at Monolithos at something like 3.30pm and set off up the steep path to the castle and the tiny church within the perimeter wall. There were quite a few other visitors there, but they'd already closed the little café in the pines at the foot of the rock, which seemed to us a little shortsighted. Especially as we'd have happily killed for an ice cream at the time.

The views from Monolithos rival those from the top of Tsambika Monastery on the east coast.

Those strange folk who love to pile up mini-cairns have gone AWOL at Monolithos. Why did we get this really strong urge to run through them knocking them all down?

Weird gargoyle.

As I said, the summit is "cairn-city".

Heading back home along the road to Apollakia, we were brought face to face with the damage done by the most recent fires. The photo below doesn't even give you 10% of the charred landscape you'll see along this road.

All in all a splendid excursion. I'd recommend it to anyone with wheels. From Lardos, through Laerma, Apollona, Profitis Ilias, Embona, Sianna to Monolithos, then on to Apollakia and across to Gennadi, where you take the coast road back up to Lardos, can easily be accomplished without rushing in a day.

Just be sure to bring your camera. Oops, that gives my age away doesn't it. Ought to say phone, tablet, whatever. At least though, when you snap a loved one, you do still ask them to say "cheese" though, yea?

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Hello Suzi (Not the Old Amen Corner Hit!)

I've now compiled a list of 15 questions, which I'll be using as the basis for an occasional series of interviews with authors who write on a Greek theme to be posted here on RFR. Links to these interviews can be found down the left hand column, under the imaginatively titled section "The Interviews". Suzi Stembridge is the first to be subjected to my 15...

Suzi Stembridge fell for Greece instantly the aircraft doors were open on the tarmac at Athens Airport in 1960 and the smells of the sea and the thyme on Hymettos flooded the aircraft cabin. She is constantly amazed at how Greece and the Greeks have conspired with fate to make her life almost exclusively about this beautiful country, although she admits to a love of her birth county Yorkshire as well. After holidaying in Greece and her islands almost every year it is not surprising that her creative talents were channeled into building up two travel businesses FILOXENIA & GRECO-FILE almost exclusively for tailor-made Greek holidays and, when the business sold, to the creation of eight novels, one historical quartet - GREEK LETTERS - one more contemporary quartet - THE COMING OF AGE. When she was studying with the Open University one of her subjects was Ancient Greek history and culture. She and her husband also found a beautiful piece of land, an olive grove overlooking the sea near Leonidio, in the Peloponnese, on which they built a house. They have two adult children. Suzi says that they feel blessed, particularly to be able explore vast areas of Greece and experience the true hospitality this country offers, hence the name of their travel company!

Suzi's books are all set primarily in Greece and she seems set to add to them for some time to come. I caught up with her recently to find out what makes her tick and why she loves Greece so much. The captions under some of the photos are written by Suzi herself.

1. Where do you live?

We live on the Pennine hills in West Yorkshire between Halifax and Huddersfield.

2. What do you write about?
I write historical and contemporary fiction, most of which has a Greek bias, either being set or partly set in Greece with other scenes in the UK, particularly Yorkshire, Wales and NW England. (One book is partly set in Cyprus – BRIGHT DAFFODIL YELLOW). Many of my characters seem to like to travel, so much of Europe has been covered in the whole series which I have called JIGSAW. Jigsaw comprises two Quartets, THE GREEK LETTERS QUARTET which starts towards the end of the Greek War of Independence in 1827 and finishes in the present decade around 2011, and a second Quartet THE COMING OF AGE with a time span from 1960 to the present decade. The protagonists in these Quartets make up a family saga, with Rosalind, her son and her great-great grandfather being the main characters.

Book covers for the first three volumes of GREEK LETTERS

3. Why Greece?
Well you might well ask! In 1960 as a rooky air hostess I travelled to Greece on my first flight as aircrew, which coincidently was almost my first flight. 

I was bowled over and the first book I wrote but not the first I published, CAST A HOROSCOPE subtitled DOORS TO MANUAL, covers this embryonic love affair. But when I met my husband in 1965 we had to go to Greece (Corfu) for our honeymoon, and the love affair became a passion. In a tiny open top Fiat 500 we travelled the length and breadth of Corfu, (THE SCORPION’S LAST TALE) as far as one could because the north was still under military control, and most roads were truly dirt tracks. By the 1970s we were using any excuse possible to travel to Greece, exploring all the islands we visited with extensive motor excursions, up mountainsides, down river-beds, Rhodes, (my first visit in 1960 showed Lindos with no-one or anything on the beaches!), Karpathos, Symi, Leros, and by the 80s when I was asked to write the brochures for a tour operator and then sell their holidays I did so. I was studying with the Open University at the time but as soon as I graduated I found myself starting my own travel agency GRECO-FILE followed by my own tour operation FILOXENIA. By the time we retired we had visited almost all areas of mainland Greece, especially the Peloponnese, Thessaly and Epirus and the major islands of the Ionian, Aegean and Crete. So with the business sold we found another dirt track starting up a mountain leading to a small plateau with an olive grove and there we built a small house.

4. How long does it take you to write a book?
It takes about 6 months to draft out a book, and then ‘how long is a piece of string’ to get it to the point where I am happy to let it go.

5. What do you enjoy most about writing?
I love planning out a book and particularly the research. It has been a passion to check the facts, making sure that they are accurate. Studying for my Open University degree taught me the importance of primary and secondary sources. If I say it was sunny on a certain date – it was! It is a great pleasure to sit at my desk in Yorkshire with windows over-looking the hills and the garden and have time to write. When we had our Greek holiday house it was magical to sit under the shade of an olive tree with the sea views and write or edit on a laptop. In this way the GREEK LETTERS QUARTET was conceived and set in the Peloponnese, as was our house!

6. What, in your view, is/has been the greatest gift from Greece to the world?
“Somewhere between Calabria and Corfu the blue really begins,”- No it's not just the light that Lawrence Durrell captured in this quote. But the gift that is Greece is also the amazing mountains, beautiful beaches, the history and precious monuments, the fresh food and wine and mostly that word Filoxenia – meaning friends of strangers, the way that strangers are treated as guests.

7. How do you come up with an idea for a book?
Different books have been conceived for different reason, the first three books in the Coming of Age Series were drafted and typed on a typewriter before I started working full time – and yes put in a drawer. They were conceived as novels with plots based on my early adult life, but not autobiographical. The Greek Letters Quartet was a result of touring all over mainland Greece, becoming very interested in history and travel as we designed tailor-made holidays for our clients. In those days it was frustrating not be able to follow my urge to write, I loved writing our wordy, accurate brochures. On retirement uppermost in my to-do-list was to write a book to help visitors to travel to unspoilt and ‘non-touristy’ areas. And we were aware that tourism can ruin a place. Our clients were encouraged to visit quieter places and hotels in areas where the business would be appreciated. As the books developed I realised they captured an age, a time from the industrial revolution but before the digital age.

8. How do you go about writing, that is to say, are you organised, do your research, disciplined, are you a messy sort who gets it done one way or another?
I am not very organised except in my single-mindedness to work. My study is messy, full of stuff, which might inspire me, lots of books, guide books, dictionaries, maps, paints and drawing blocks, old Greek photographic calendars, an evil eye talisman, primitive oil paintings on hardboard. My favourite bought on my first visit to Greece in 1960s is of drunken singers with a bouzouki serenading under a Plaka balcony with the Acropolis in the background; its tiny mirror image bought in Olymbos on Karpathos, in the 1980s, is the same subject but perhaps less sober singers! Because these 8 books are actually one long family saga, seven generations from 1827 to the present day I have had to keep my mind very well organised to remember who is related to who, keep the dates tidy, and it has been quite a challenge. I am not sure how many people have read all 8 books, although I can see some of my reviewers have done so. Despite this massive link I have also had to work hard to keep each book as an independent and different read.

9. Which other authors do you read?
I read a lot, from the classics to biographies but I am doing very well with the authors from A Good Greek Read: Kathryn Gauci, Effrosyni Moscoudi, your own books, - which truly I have loved! – Ruth Kozak, Daphne Kapsali, Marjory McGinn, Sara Alexi, Pamela Jane Rogers, Yvonne Payne, Stephanie Wood, but it is wrong to single people out, there are so many and so many more to read. My first reads were of course Mary Renault, Lawrence Durrell, Gerald Durrell, John Fowles, Patrick Leigh Fermor, until more recently William Dalrymple, Jeffrey Eugenides, Ian McEwen etc.

10. What's your preferred kind of music?
I love opera, classical music, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, (of course with Lindos holidays!) ancient stuff like Frank Sinatra and even today’s music.

11. Do you like Greek music and if so, which kind?
Again any Greek music from Vangelis to Theodorakis.

12. Favourite Greek dish?
I love fish, any fish, such a treat in Greece but I am as happy with a plate of moussaka or lamb kleftiko.

13. Favourite place in Greece and the reason(s)?
I love most places in Greece, particularly a humble non-touristy fishing village or tiny mountain village miles from anywhere, but particularly I love the Peloponnese where the mountains come down to the sea. Nafplion is a beautiful town, a great place whatever your mood. I like Epirus and Thessaly so a pattern emerges of places with mountains, sea, Byzantine monasteries and churches, ancient sites, ticking my box. 

The perfect church of the Holy Cross, Doliana, Thessaly. Fired during WW2 so no frescoes remain

What I do not like is the crazy architecture of the 1970s, eyesores like the necessary power station in Megalopolis in Arcadia, the unnecessary concrete monstrosity that is the Acheloos Dam, now hopefully abandoned before doing untold damage to the rivers and deltas of eastern Greece. One of our dirt road meanderings brought us face to face with this horrendous desecration in the heart of Pindus.

in the Pindus Mountains near the Acheloos Dam which threatened not only the forested valleys but to divert water away from Western Greece and the delta, with no doubt untold damage. Fortunately in February 2016 this ‘folly’ was shelved.

14.What links would you like the readers to explore in connection with your work, including, of course, sites where your work may be purchased?

...or any good bookshop to order. ISBN: Greek Letters Quartet: 
Vol 1 978-1-78507-021-1;
Vol 2 978-1-78507-116-8; 
Vol 3 978-1-78507-283-3; 
Vol 4 978-1-78507-792-0; 
Cast A Horoscope 978-1-78507-363-2; 
The Glass Class 978-1-78507-628-2.

Website: with synopses of the novels.

15. And finally, reading device or real book?
Either, depending on my mood and location: a Kindle on the beach, in the garden, a book in bed or by a log fire.

Well I hope that you will enjoy this and subsequent interviews, plus perhaps investigate Suzi's work if you haven't already done so.

More occasional interviews will follow in this series as and when I get the time to cross paths with other authors who write on a Greek theme. Each new one will be listed in "The Interviews" which can be found in the left hand column.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Fancy Meeting You/Ladies Second (!?)

Stacy and I. She's not a stranger any longer of course.
I forgot to mention in the post "Above and Beyond" something else that happened the last time I was on Halki. There I was sitting supping my tonic in the harbour-front café and being all modern and checking my e-mails on the iPod after having seen my guests off to go exploring when this stranger approached and asked me if I was indeed John Manuel. 

Now, I know what you're thinking, "He's got delusions now. Thinks he's a mega star." Well, there's no need to worry on that score. Have to be honest though, this kind of thing does happen a little more often this past year or two than it used to. I'm only grateful that I'm not a huge household name, because for those folk who are this must happen to them far too often and it no doubt taxes their patience no end.

In my case, however, it's a total delight because I'm always thrilled when someone I've never met tells me that they read my scribblings and derive some pleasure out of them. So, as Stacy Buffham introduced herself I was once again amazed at the power of the internet. Oddly enough she told me that she usually went to another island, Tilos I think, but as I've left this a couple of weeks before mentioning it she'll forgive me if I'm wrong. She'd only come to Halki because she couldn't get in at her preferred destination, but was now so glad that she'd ended up here on Halki.

As usual the island had worked its charm and she was smitten. I've never met a Grecophile who wasn't. Anyway, she and I chatted for probably half an hour before she very graciously decided that she ought to leave me be, despite my assurance that since I wasn't going anywhere for another few hours it was quite nice to have some company. She was, however, conscious of having sprung herself on me without warning and so felt it better not to outstay her welcome. She explained that, having come to Halki she half expected that she might spot me, since as a reader of my "ramblings" she knew that I would be on the island some time during the week.

Just on that thought of the power of the internet, there have been a couple of instances during the past year or two that have astounded me. I was gardening at home a while back when a car drew up outside the gate and a Greek man got out, came to the gate and called for my attention. He and his relatives will forgive me if I again get some details wrong, but the essence was that he lived in Asklipio, but had also lived in Australia for some years and still has relatives over there. His aunt, sister or cousin, or something like that had recently told him that he was now living within a few km of yours truly and, using his intuition from descriptions he'd read in my writings about where we live, he'd come to see if he could find me.

His aunt wanted him to tell me that she was a fan of the blog and so, once he'd established that it was in fact me, he asked if I'd sign a copy of one of the novels so that he could send it off to Australia as a gift. To say I was amazed is to grossly understate things.

I've done my last excursion for this season, sadly. Well, there is a slim possibility that I'll do Rhodes Town again on Tuesday, but it's not very likely, especially after the kind of season we've just had. I am always slightly fazed when the work stops because it's not often possible to wish my friends on the boats, on Halki or in Rhodes Town a kalo heimo'na because I never know that I'm actually there for the last time. What usually happens is the office will call me the following week and say "that's it, we're done." 

On board the Madelena, during a Bay-to-Bay excursion.

Know where this is then?

So I probably won't see my colleague Mihalis again until next season. He amuses me often because he's the first Greek I've actually worked with who's doing excursions. So, needless to say he behaves differently to the xe'noi, the other reps from other countries, like me. On Halki, while the other reps are going for a swim, or perhaps sitting for hours in a café or taverna, Mihalis will be whizzing by on someone's scooter, or perhaps driving someone else's pickup to give a few tourists a lift to the beach or to their accommodation, having met them on the boat coming over. Now and again he'll tootle past on the back of a scooter with a Halkiot friend, fishing tackle clutched in his hands as they nip off to a remote bay for a spot of psa'rema. Just a couple of weeks back he caught two yermanos (dusky spinefoot) and, arriving at my table at Babis Taverna, presented them to me in a carrier bag and told me I could take them home for the barbie. Didn't he want them himself I asked. "Nah," he replied, "already got loads." Mihalis has a master plan and it involves retiring to Halki, where he dreams of a small waterfront home with a βάρκα tied up just outside in which he'll go fishing every day to catch his family's supper. Can't knock a dream like that really.

The Halki team. Mihalis is on the left.

The other day we were invited by some Greek friends to a meal at their home in the remote village of Kattavia. The hosts are a delightful senior couple who actually live (as they have done for many years) in Baltimore, US. There the family have a restaurant (no surprises there then) and their grown-up kids have kids of their own, thus making it very difficult for our friends to move back to Rhodes in their retirement. The house in Kattavia was the home of the wife's mother, who died a year or two back, but as is their habit, our friends come over here every summer for several months, during which Makis, the husband, will beaver away doing maintenance on the property, which is an immaculately maintained cottage built around three sides of a generously-proportioned courtyard. There is a modest orchard to the side, packed with mature fruit trees, all of which have a abundance of unripe fruit hanging on them right now. Inside the cottage there is the traditional stone archway, adding to the old-world feel of the place. They're considering putting it on the market, but are still loathe to do so, since it carries decades of family memories for Stella, the wife, who grew up there.

The guests for the recent soirée numbered about twenty adults and probably four or five children of that "running all over the place" age. At this time of the year we had to arrive at around 6.00pm to get there whilst there was still some daylight, but we all sat in the courtyard as the sky darkened and the stars all popped out and began twinkling to order, the women wrapping light cardigans around their shoulders as the darkness took hold. Me and the beloved couldn't complain though, after all it's the middle of October and here we all were having an al fresco evening with good friends.

Owing to the numbers Stella had decided to do the food as a buffet so that everyone could go and help themselves. She'd done us proud with a sumptuous spread of traditional Greek food, including a plate of chick peas done in a lemon and herb sauce that was simply awesome. There were portions of fried fish, dolmades, a chicken dish for the meat-eaters, a selection of salads and a baked aubergine dish which was also superb. Some of our fellow guests turned up with tapsis full of moussaka, or even cheesecake, so there was no shortage of tucker. All in all a perfect evening. As soon as the food was ready one of the senior male guests was called on to offer brief thanks to the Creator before everyone was invited to head for the food. Makis was unceasing in his tour among the guests wielding a couple of bottles of wine, one a white medium and the other a dry red. As usual the women by and large went for the former and the men the latter, apart from those who opted for a beer of course.

While the younger children gathered in knots in the corner of the courtyard, their faces glowing in the light of their mobile phones as they busily shared texts and games together, the adults were called upon to head for the food. This was when I discovered something about the culture that I don't remember having noticed before. It was something that, if I'm honest, didn't sit too well with me, but then, it's not my place to set about trying to change things. Back in the UK, on occasions such as this I'd always hope that a few other guests, especially women and girls, would serve themselves first, so as for me not to appear either greedy or inconsiderate. I'd hang back a while, albeit with some degree of difficulty! Here though I found that all the women stayed glued to their seats while the men set about the food first. It's the age-old custom, the women subservient to their men, who get first pickings. I tried to suggest that the women and girls might like to go to the buffet before me, but they were having none of it. They reacted with disbelief. No! You're a man, you must fill your plate first and then we women will follow. The only exception to this would be if a woman went to the food to fill a plate for her husband either because he can't be bothered to go himself, or perhaps because he is unable due to some physical impairment.

That kind of throwback to a former age takes some adjusting to.

Right then, if you'd like me to sign anything, form an orderly queue... 😝

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Far from Anywhere

Had to go into Rhodes Town on Friday, so we took the opportunity to go for a smoked salmon baguette at the wonderfully quirky Koukos [cuckoo] café. This part of the "new" town in Rhodes is rather nice to wander around, since if you take a side street or two you discover that it still contains some pretty atmospheric old streets (see top photo). It's the old centre of the original "New" Town, going back over a century to times before the new town hotels were ever even thought of, leave alone constructed.

The Koukos is a magnet for Greeks too, since its prices are very competitive and there's an excellent choice of snacks.
But what really prompted this post was the fact that this morning I cycled up to Asklipio to collect our mail. I haven't done it on my bike since last winter, since it's 4km of uphill dirt track all the way. As a consequence it takes me half an hour to get up to the village, but a mere ten minutes to get home again.

On the way up it felt more like July than October 9th. There was no wind at all and the temperature on the lane must have been around the lower thirties, since as I type this now an hour or two later it's 29ºC outside my office window in the shade at home. The smell of the pines in my nostrils as I walked my bike up the steeper parts of the lane reminded me of holidays long past. I used to wish I could bottle that smell and open it to take a whiff during the long cold winters in the UK. It's a smell unique to the maquis countryside of the Mediterranean, particularly where it's peppered with pines, as it is in the hills above our home here on Rhodes. There are olive groves all the way too and often I stop to simply absorb the environment, since gazing around at lots of places on that lane one can see nothing at all that's man-made, apart from the tracks along the lane that is.

There's the ever-present smell of the dry pines and the sight of soaring birds of prey catching the thermals above in the totally cloudless sky. Lowering one's gaze there's the vast expanse too of the blue sea, which consistently reminds me of how small I am. That sea pays no mind to the human wickedness that's made the city of Aleppo a household name, for all the wrong reasons. It isn't bothered by the Trump-Clinton fraças or petty arguments among ex-pats living over here who bicker and worry about "Brexit" or who's not going to which barbecue because someone else they don't like has been invited.

The vastness and beauty of the environment here gives one a big horizon, a big sky as Kate Bush once sang. And I love it. 

I arrived at the Agapitos taverna a pool of sweaty flesh under my t-shirt, owing in part to the rucksack on my back into which I was going to stuff the small packages (herbal stuff regularly ordered from Healthspan) that I was going to collect along with any other mail that may be waiting for me.

When you collect mail from a village bar/taverna as we do, you get used to the fact that you need to assign a little time to the task. When the bills are due, for example, they'll all be stacked in shoeboxes and each resident sits down with a box and thumbs through a couple of hundred envelopes until they find their own. Today there were three bills needing to be collected, the phone bill, the water bill and the electricity bill, thus incurring  at least a quarter of an hour of fingering through envelopes and concentrating on reading each name to be sure that I didn't miss anything addressed to us or our two closest neighbours. 

I asked Athanasia, who spends almost her entire life in the kitchen here, if I could have a portokala'da (a Greek orangeade) to sip while I sifted. You can see it on the windowsill in the 2nd photo below. It was while I sifted that I had one of those moments when you kind of stop and take stock of your lot in life. Go on, admit it, you do know what I mean. While I sorted through envelope after envelope, occasionally whipping one out and throwing it to one side to take back wth me, I became aware that a typical kafeneion morning was going on around me right outside. There must have been thirty or forty village men out there, many of which I knew, at least by sight after eleven years of living here, all seated around tables playing cards or backgammon, all arguing heatedly as they always do about politics or possibly football. Maybe basketball, which the Greeks simple call "basket".

I only had my rather ancient phone with me, which takes pictures of questionable quality at the best of times, but I snapped these couple of photos anyway because what I was witnessing was putting me in ruminative mood. These men (and of course there were no women present) had all known each other from birth, there was Giannis the manager of the Ekaterini Hotel, there was Giorgos from the Gré Café and the bloke who retired a year or two ago from the Gennadi post office, there was Dimitri "the horse" and the local Papas, Giorgo's father as it happens. There was the bloke I remember who drives the local JCB, whose name escapes me and so on it went.

As I finished my drink, slung my rucksack back over my shoulders, said "ta leme" to Athanasia and began to push my bike back up the hill out of the village and toward the lane that would take me the 4km back down the valley to my home, I walked beneath a terrace where a woman stood and called to the group of early-teenage children that were hanging out behind the Agapitos Bar/taverna.

"Giorgia!! Giorgia!!" she called, "Is Pelagia there with you?"
"NO. She isn't!" came the reply.
"Then where is she?" The woman called back.
"I don't know..." one of the other youngster then interrupted, "She's down the hill at Athina's!"
"Thank you!" the woman replied and went inside.

Village life. The group of young people, about five or six of them, all looked very different from the kids in the town. I wouldn't say that they looked dowdy, but they had a kind of wholesomeness about them, their clothes a lot more conservative without being too frumpy. They were occupying themselves with a kitten that one of the boys was carrying. I heard its mewing as they all petted it. I'd had no qualms about leaving my bike out there, safe in the knowledge that they wouldn't dream of touching it.

Life as it's gone on here for centuries. 

And I found myself thinking, "This is why I love living here. This is what adds so much quality to a simple life on a hillside on a Greek island." Here on a mountainside in this village that's "makria apo pouthena" there is a kind of equilibrium that transcends economic crises, American-Russian distrust, Pokemon, the Kardasians ...whatever. There's a rhythm of life that still goes on as it has from time immemorial. And it makes me feel, well, it makes me feel content, it de-stresses me, it reminds me of what life ought to be about.

I'm not being idealistic. The stoicism of these local folk is admirable. There are those in the village that I was cycling away from who are hard-put to pay their bills after all the cuts in pensions and wages, too after the weird holiday season that is now drawing to a close. The community, though, is still intact. OK, so it's rarer than it used to be. The whole world changes; here is no different. But to be able to spend one's days in this environment, as a guest among these open-hearted folk, well, one could do a lot worse.

I suppose what I'm saying is that we all need perspective and we don't get it from charging around chasing the dollar all the time. There's a good deal of perspective to be found in a mountain village on a Greek island that's "makria apo pouthena" - far from anywhere.