Monday, 28 August 2017

The Ouzo Bell

On board The Triton with Captain Makis and wife Nikoleta last week I asked Nikoleta about the above two picture frames, hanging on the wall in the cabin down below. In case you haven't already seen the Triton (Where've you been all my blogging life?), here she is...

Nikoleta's family roots are on the island of Symi, and so we often compare notes about it, because I know the island very well. Before I get around to the story about the Ouzo Bell though, her comments about living on Symi were, I thought, rather interesting and threw up a perspective that kind of illustrates why we live here on Rhodes, albeit quite a long way from 'where the action' is, as it were.

Lots of folk ask me why we moved to Rhodes and many of my regular readers (maybe you need to try therapy) will know that I often surprise them when I say that we never holidayed here before coming to live on the island. When I say "moved to Rhodes" I mean it in the context of location within Greece and not so much with regard to why we moved to Greece herself (There are some who'd say that I need therapy). So many ex-pats who live out here moved here after having had a dozen or so holidays on Rhodes and, having fallen in love with the place, the decision as to where in Greece to put down roots was already a done deal (cue the same explanation regarding ex-pats Greece-and-indeed-planet-wide!).

When me and the better half discussed possible locations, we had on our list a series of islands (curiously, nowhere mainland) that we considered as representing 'the real Greece'. So, on our list were places like Skiathos, Skopelos, Samos, Paxos, maybe a smaller island in the Cyclades and, of course, Symi. Ending up here on Rhodes was an accident that's explained in my books, notably "Feta Compli!" and one or two of the others. But, and this is a big 'but' (as John Cleese once said in a Monty Python sketch), we're so glad we are here now because there are some very practical reasons why living on a smaller island wouldn't have suited us.

Now, of course, at this point (assuming they're still reading this) there will be ex-pats living on Symi and other smaller island that are reaching for their keyboards in defence of their chosen Shangri-La even as I speak (metaphorically). But as I so often find myself saying, "each to his/her own" OK? No need for feelings of insecurity or instant knee-jerk defensive action. It's only my take on things. Well, Nikoleta's too, which is what prompted me to write this stuff up anyway.

So, I asked Nikoleta if she perhaps missed her native island. Would't she, given the choice, prefer to be back there rather than living on the much busier Rhodes?

"WHAT? NO, NO NO!" Was her rather surprisingly emphatic reply. "It's nowhere! I'd go crazy."

You're probably already ahead of me now. Would she care to explain? Care to she would...

"Here I can go to a good-sized supermarket and get my shopping at prices that won't bankrupt me (well, not quite). Here I can go to town and see some life, sit in a café/bar and not have to answer to every neighbour and family member about what I'm doing and why. I even have more than one choice of hairdresser. Island life [small island life I would interject here, because the smarter among my readers will probably have noticed that Rhodes too is an island] in winter is like living in a cemetery, only quieter. There is nothing there! Even if we had a car there it would mean an expensive trip to Rhodes to do the KTEO test every year. If I want to buy clothes or shoes..."

She continued in similar vein for quite some time, leaving me in no doubt as to why she preferred living on Rhodes. Now, not every reason that she cited would be among ours for not living over there, but some would. Having lived here for years I am rather glad, I have to admit, to easily be able to buy some timber for a DIY project, to go to the hospital without incurring ferries and hotel bills, to get my car tested in one morning and be home for lunch. OK, you could argue that living on a smaller island would mean you may not need a car. It's all very subjective as I said earlier. Must admit, both me and the better half like the fact that we can nip up to town in less than an hour during the winter months and get a fix of 'street café culture', maybe go window-shopping and such like.

In times past small island life was very geared around farming and fishing too. Villagers would have year-round jobs to do to put food on their tables. These days so often everything's geared to the tourist industry and thus in wintertime there is precious little to do for months on end. Frankly, from what I've learned about the ex-pat community on some small islands, it's the sad fact too that in more than one case I could refer to, the British (for example) are split into at least two camps and neither talks to the other. I don't want to dwell on that side of things, but it is a sordid fact. Grown-ups? It's debatable.

Anyway, let's get positive (well, almost). To return to the Ouzo Bell. This story is admittedly a bit nostalgic for the golden days of tourism in the Greek islands too I suppose. Nikoleta's dad Sotiris used to run a ship, you know, one of those "Shirley Valentine-esque" ex-fishing vessels that lend themselves perfectly to lazy excursions in and out of deserted coves and the smell of fish barbecuing at the back of the beach in an old oil-drum while the guests take a dip to cool off before eating a delicious lunch to the tinny sound of Bouzouki music under a few tamarisk trees behind the beach. That's got you going already, eh?

Well, twenty or even thirty years ago he would run an excursion on board his boat every day, out of Symi harbour. He'd cruise around the coast, stopping at coves and generally giving his guests a splendid day out in impossibly beautiful and restful surroundings. Sotiris was the type who loved to be with his guests. He'd interact with them, tell them stories, entertain them by being himself. He was old-style Greek and would treat all his guests as if they were long-lost family. He always too had a ready smile and, at around mid-afternoon on every trip, would ring a bell on the vessel as she lazily cut through the turquoise waters to signal that it was time to break out the ouzo, the free ouzo at that.

Well, one summer he had a really good group of guests who seemed to gel perfectly together. They came from several countries. Most of them were British, but among them were a few from Germany and Scandinavia too. This was getting toward the end of Sotiri's working life. These good folk enjoyed their excursion on board with Sotiri so much that they all came back the following day to do it again. The second day proved to be better even than the first and thus they all decided that it would be fun to do it a third consecutive day.

This same group of now fast friends ended up doing the trip ten days on the trot. By the time their holidays were drawing to a close they'd become really fond of their aging Greek host and loved that moment when he'd ring that bell and declare: "Ouzo time!!"

Needless to say they all decided to keep in touch and when, sadly, their host Sotiris died, they all clubbed together to purchase that bell, before his boat had to be disposed of, and they gave it to Nikoleta as a fond memento of their appreciation for her old now-departed dad. Thus it was eventually that it came to be installed on the Triton, where it still hangs today. The guests all got together and sent that message, the one you see in the left hand frame above, listing all of their names and concluding with those words of nostalgia and appreciation:

"Ring the bell for Sotiris and ouzo time forever".

Go on, tell me you don't wish you'd been one of that group.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

As you may know, I run a Facebook group called "A Good Greek Read". It has, I'm amazed and delighted (in equal measure) to say, become quite a success and the members generally report that they enjoy the benefits that being in the group bring. The whole idea came to me a couple of years ago while I was trawling one of the on-line bookstores for something with a Greek theme to read. 

"It would be nice," I thought, "if there were a group on Facebook where members posted links to reading material for Grecophiles." It wouldn't have to be only fiction, or only factual, not even only books. As long as it relates to Greece (or Cyprus) in some way, it would qualify for posting. Thus I started the thing up, rather expecting it to be a bit of a flop in all honesty. 

Now, over two years on, it's got 2300 plus members and people are joining every day. Members can trawl down the page for books, magazine articles, blog posts or news items that simply need to have a connection with Greece to qualify for inclusion. Every post includes a link so that, if you want to investigate the reading material in question, all you need to do is click the link. If it's a book then the link will usually be to its Amazon page, but it doesn't have to be. It can be to any other on-line bookstore, even another article about that work that will interest the reader. A Good Greek Read is a kind of virtual library for all things Greece-related.

I'm rather chuffed to be honest that quite a few pretty well-known writers on a Greek theme are also members of A Good Greek Read. This means that members can interact with the writers of their favourite Greek-themed literature through comments on the posts. Not a few have ended up PM-ing with authors too, these sending them freebies on occasion. All in all, a result. 

There was only one 'incident' that almost made me pack the whole thing in within a few weeks of starting it up. Someone joined who was evidently proud of being an 'intellectual' and a 'Hellenophile'. She was a lecturer at some university or other and very aggressively tried to make me change the name of the group to "A Good Hellenic Read." Her argument was that Greeks don't want to be called Greeks and that they would rather we all called their country "Ellada" or "Hellas". She posited that it was an insult to the Greeks to call Greece Greece and her people Greeks.

She may well have a few letters after her name, but I have had Greek relatives for over forty years, have lived here for 12 years and counting and have a large circle of Greek friends. Oddly, none of my Greek friends or relatives could give a toss about this issue. Seems that not a few non-Greeks who feel they need to champion the cause for the poor unfortunately misnamed Greeks do however, feel the need to take up the figurative cudgel.

I won't go into all the ins and outs of her argument here, but suffice it to say that I had to block her from the group when it was still only weeks old after some pretty aggressive comments that had really upset me, not least because of her annoying condescension. She was the Richard Dawkins of all things Greek. Sorry, Hellenic.

Now. let me get this straight. What do the Germans call their homeland? Deutchland, right? What do the Swiss call their homeland? Helvetia, yes? In fact, the French call Germany l'Allemagne and England they call Angleterre. The Germans call Greece Griechenland ...I could go on. Greece doesn't have the monopoly on being called something different by non-compatriots. This person to whom I refer asserts that to call Greece Greece is to insult her and her people. Odd that, because virtually every Greek I know will say, when the conversation turns to any number of endearing national traits that these folk manifest, "It's becoss I am Greek!", which is often sufficient to explain things. Oh, and they usually say it with a smile or a wide grin.

Frankly, the expression 'to split hairs' comes swiftly to mind here. Why, some years ago there was a big hit song in the Greek charts called "Greek Lover" in which the 'singer' boasts about the fact that he's a Greek lover and the 'best in the world'. Here's the official video. Warning, it's a bit racy in places!! Also it takes a while to get going, but stick with it. It would go down well at your next Greek-themed party by the way. Tell the DJ. After you've listened to that, go tell me that the Greeks are insulted about being called 'Greek'. Plus, what kind of wedding did Nia Vardalos make the subject of her very funny 2002 movie? Oh yes, that's right, it was called "My Big Fat Hellenic Wedding", right?

What did old Will Shakespeare's Juliet once say about whether it mattered what name her lover was called by?

Just time for a couple of photos. Rhodes municipality are once again having a go at encouraging folk to recycle. Just the other evening in town I saw these newly-arrived bins for recyclable materials. Across the top of the sign on the front, in the red band, it reads "Please - Not rubbish!" It remains to be seen whether that will work, but at least they're having a go again.

I wonder whether anyone who thinks they know Rhodes can hazard a guess, even state with certainty, where the street in the photo below can be found. It may just surprise some of you...

The photo below tells a lovely story. If you click on the photo and get the larger view you ought to be able to make out the title of the frame on the left. It reads:

"The Ouzo Bell Comes with Love and Fond Memories"
and at the bottom it says, "Ring the bell for Sotiris and ouzo time forever". In order to see these two frames, the right one of course containing a photo of the Sotiri in question, then you'd have to be aboard the lovely boat "Triton", owned and run by my good friends Makis and Nikoleta. In the next post I'll re-post this photo and tell you that rather touching and heartwarming story behind it. (Tune in next time folks...). Nothing like building a bit of anticipation, now, is there?

Thursday, 3 August 2017

I Could Have Danced All Night

Time was when me and the better half would dabble a little in the local Bouzoukia while in Greece on holiday. In such diverse places as Leros, Kefallonia, Athens, Skiathos, Samos and Poros we've been known to strut our stuff well into the small hours.

Well, all right, coming clean, the beloved has done so, whereas I more often than not have stood like a wallflower and watched her getting on with it. 

See, the thing is, as one gets older the desire to begin one's social evening at some time after midnight in a club packed to the gills and throbbing with music so loud that you feel it in your stomach rather than hear it through your ears does tend to ebb somewhat.

I was prompted to write this post after a couple of recent conversations with guests on my excursions. Someone asked me the other night, as we sat outside the Top Three bar at around 11.30pm and the town was buzzing with life, full of beautiful people all dressed up to the nines (what does that mean by the way?) "Is the town always like this?" The street was full of people all just stepping out for the evening and there we were waiting for the coach to take us back 'home' down to the south of the island after an evening in Rhodes Town. The girl who asked this question was actually well impressed and I could tell that she kind of wished that the town where she lived in the UK could be like this. 

It may not be everyone's glass of ouzo, but I'll admit that it is rather appealing to be out in a bar on the street at such an hour feeling the gentle breeze against your skin with the temperature at around 28ºC. The bars, all outdoors of course, are simply bursting with life. Young folk dressed in impossibly tight clothes and, in the girls' case, not much of those either, are meeting up and talking excitedly about where they'll be going soon, after the initial drink and chat that's just to get the evening off to a flying start. The whole scene is, well, life-affirming if you get what I mean. Yes, this country's in crisis, but that hasn't stopped the culture from carrying on regardless. Greeks know how to let their hair down without resorting to an excess of alcohol or aggressive behaviour. The Bouzoukia culture demonstrates this admirably.

One of the meanings of that word Bouzoukia is to describe a music club where traditional rebehiko and laika music is played, often by a live band, while singers sing songs about hearts being torn asunder by unrequited love, or being jilted or perhaps even being torn away from the motherland owing to economic migration. Once the show gets under way at something like 12.30am, the singers simply parade on and off of the stage or even dance floor and the music never stops. The musicians just progress on from one song to another, occasionally involving a change of tempo and key, while one singer goes backstage to cool down and the next one assumes the position at the microphone.

The assembled throng of people having a good time are dancing all around the singer(s) very often (thank goodness for the invention of mikes without leads) and the dance floor can often be so tightly packed that if you don't know the dance or can't get the rhythm right you're in serious danger of sustaining an injury from going up when the crowd is going down, or left when they go right. 

My guests was enquiring too because I think she was wondering how come the town was so alive at so late an hour. Of course, there are all-night clubs in the UK, but they'll usually be playing disco-beat stuff and there certainly won't be that vibrant buzz outdoors along the streets from the sheer numbers of people in the café-bars or strolling along with arms linked together as they talk excitedly about how their day has been or whatever. 

I found myself explaining that the Greeks split the day up in a rather different fashion from how the northern Europeans do it. The morning lasts from dawn until 12 noon. Mesi meri (literally 'the middle of the day') lasts from around noon until about 5.00pm. Then the afternoon runs from then until around nine. Tell a Greek you'll meet them 'this afternoon' and they interpret that as some time in the early evening. It has to do with the working hours of course. Certainly the retail stores are all open from 5.00pm until 9.00pm and thus the staff don't get home until about 9.30pm or later. Once they've showered, changed, perhaps eaten, they can't be out on the town much before 11.00pm anyway. The fact too that by and large they sleep from around 3.00pm until 5.00-ish (in the 'mesi meri') means that they don't need as much sleep during the night as we northern Europeans.

Thus it was that, a few decades ago when I could live it up with the best of them, we'd be going out a little before midnight so that my better half could tsifteteli her way through the small hours while I stood there and felt my insides vibrate. I didn't mind really, I could, of course, do a bit here and there, I can do a tsifteteli in that way the men do when their female partners need a hand in the small of their back while they contort themselves over backwards. I know how to wave my arms and click my fingers (flaming hurts that too!) like the Greeks do so as not to make too much of a fool of myself. If they play a Kalamatiano (which they only seem to do rarely these days) I know all the steps and even quite enjoy that one. 

If, back in the days when we used to be able to stay up during all those unearthly hours, they'd played either the kalamatiano or perhaps the hasaposerviko for the duration, then indeed I could have danced all night.

These days, though, give me a good book and a comfy bed. I'll leave it to those young whippernsappers to carry on the custom of going home as the sun comes up.